Genetic Determinants of Cancer Cell Survival in Tumor Microenvironment Stresses

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Keenan, Melissa Marie


Chi, Jen-Tsan

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In order to propagate a solid tumor, cancer cells must adapt to and survive under various tumor microenvironment (TME) stresses, such as hypoxia or lactic acidosis. Additionally, cancer cells exposed to these stresses are more resistant to therapies, more likely to metastasize and often are worse for patient prognosis. While the presence of these stresses is generally negative for cancer patients, since these stresses are mostly unique to the TME, they also offer an opportunity to develop more selective therapeutics. If we achieve a better understanding of the adaptive mechanisms cancer cells employ to survive the TME stresses, then hopefully we, as a scientific community, can devise more effective cancer therapeutics specifically targeting cancer cells under stress. To systematically identify genes that modulate cancer cell survival under stresses, we performed shRNA screens under hypoxia or lactic acidosis. From these screens, we discovered that genetic depletion of acetyl-CoA carboxylase alpha (ACACA or ACC1) or ATP citrate lyase (ACLY) protected cancer cells from hypoxia-induced apoptosis. Furthermore, the loss of ACLY or ACC1 reduced the levels and activities of the oncogenic transcription factor ETV4. Silencing ETV4 also protected cells from hypoxia-induced apoptosis and led to remarkably similar transcriptional responses as with silenced ACLY or ACC1, including an anti-apoptotic program. Metabolomic analysis found that while α-ketoglutarate levels decrease under hypoxia in control cells, α-ketoglutarate was paradoxically increased under hypoxia when ACC1 or ACLY were depleted. Supplementation with α-ketoglutarate rescued the hypoxia-induced apoptosis and recapitulated the decreased expression and activity of ETV4, likely via an epigenetic mechanism. Therefore, ACC1 and ACLY regulated the levels of ETV4 under hypoxia via increased α-ketoglutarate. These results reveal that the ACC1/ACLY-α-ketoglutarate-ETV4 axis is a novel means by which metabolic states regulate transcriptional output for life vs. death decisions under hypoxia. Since many lipogenic inhibitors are under investigation as cancer therapeutics, our findings suggest that the use of these inhibitors will need to be carefully considered with respect to oncogenic drivers, tumor hypoxia, progression and dormancy. More broadly, our screen provides a framework for studying additional tumor cell stress-adaption mechanisms in the future.





Keenan, Melissa Marie (2015). Genetic Determinants of Cancer Cell Survival in Tumor Microenvironment Stresses. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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