Anthrax lethal toxin (LT) increases vascular leakage in a number of mammalian models and in human anthrax disease. Using a zebrafish model, we determined that vascular delivery of LT increased permeability, which was phenocopied by treatment with a selective chemical inhibitor of MEK1 and MEK2 (also known as mitogen-activated protein kinase [MAPK] kinase, MEK, or MKK). Here we investigate further the role of MEK1/phospho-ERK (pERK) in the action of LT. Overexpression of wild-type zebrafish MEK1 at high levels did not induce detrimental effects. However, a constitutively activated version, MEK1S219D,S223D (MEK1DD), induced early defects in embryonic development that correlated with increased ERK/MAPK phosphorylation. To bypass these early developmental defects and to provide a genetic tool for examining the action of lethal factor (LF), we generated inducible transgenic zebrafish lines expressing either wild-type or activated MEK1 under the control of a heat shock promoter. Remarkably, induction of MEK1DD transgene expression prior to LT delivery prevented vascular damage, while the wild-type MEK1 line did not. In the presence of both LT and MEK1DD transgene expression, cardiovascular development and function proceeded normally in most embryos. The resistance to microsphere leakage in transgenic animals demonstrated a protective role against LT-induced vascular permeability. A consistent increase in ERK phosphorylation among LT-resistant MEK1DD transgenic animals provided additional confirmation of transgene activation. These findings provide a novel genetic approach to examine mechanism of action of LT in vivo through one of its known targets. This approach may be generally applied to investigate additional pathogen-host interactions and to provide mechanistic insights into host signaling pathways affected by pathogen entry.
Mitogen-activated protein kinase kinases (MKK or MEK) 1 and 2 are usually treated as redundant kinases. However, in assessing their relative contribution towards ERK-mediated biologic response investigators have relied on tests of necessity, not sufficiency. In response we developed a novel experimental model using lethal toxin (LeTx), an anthrax toxin-derived pan-MKK protease, and genetically engineered protease resistant MKK mutants (MKKcr) to test the sufficiency of MEK signaling in melanoma SK-MEL-28 cells. Surprisingly, ERK activity persisted in LeTx-treated cells expressing MEK2cr but not MEK1cr. Microarray analysis revealed non-overlapping downstream transcriptional targets of MEK1 and MEK2, and indicated a substantial rescue effect of MEK2cr on proliferation pathways. Furthermore, LeTx efficiently inhibited the cell proliferation and anchorage-independent growth of SK-MEL-28 cells expressing MKK1cr but not MEK2cr. These results indicate in SK-MEL-28 cells MEK1 and MEK2 signaling pathways are not redundant and interchangeable for cell proliferation. We conclude that in the absence of other MKK, MEK2 is sufficient for SK-MEL-28 cell proliferation. MEK1 conditionally compensates for loss of MEK2 only in the presence of other MKK.
The Ras/Raf/Mek/Erk mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway regulates fundamental processes in normal and malignant cells, including proliferation, differentiation, and cell survival. Mutations in this pathway have been associated with carcinogenesis and developmental disorders, making Mek1 and Mek2 prime therapeutic targets. In this study, we examined the requirement for Mek1 and Mek2 in skin neoplasia using the two-step 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthraacene/12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (DMBA/TPA) skin carcinogenesis model. Mice lacking epidermal Mek1 protein develop fewer papillomas than both wild-type and Mek2-null mice following DMBA/TPA treatment. Mek1 knockout mice had smaller papillomas, delayed tumor onset, and half the tumor burden of wild-type mice. Loss of one Mek1 allele, however, did not affect tumor development, indicating that one Mek1 allele is sufficient for normal papilloma formation. No difference in TPA-induced hyperproliferation, inflammation, or Erk activation was observed between wild-type, conditional Mek1 knockout, and Mek2-null mice, indicating that Mek1 findings were not due to a general failure of these processes. These data show that Mek1 is important for skin tumor development and that Mek2 cannot compensate for the loss of Mek1 function in this setting.
MEK is a dual-specificity kinase that activates the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase upon agonist binding to receptors. The ERK/MAP kinase cascade is involved in cell fate determination in many organisms. In mammals, this pathway is proposed to regulate cell growth and differentiation. Genetic studies have shown that although a single Mek gene is present in Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster, and Xenopus laevis, two Mek homologs, Mek1 and Mek2, are present in the mammalian cascade. The inactivation of the Mek1 gene leads to embryonic lethality and has revealed the unique role played by Mek1 during embryogenesis. To investigate the biological function of the second homolog, we have generated mice deficient in Mek2 function. Mek2 mutant mice are viable and fertile, and they do not present flagrant morphological alteration. Although several components of the ERK/MAP kinase cascade have been implicated in thymocyte development, no such involvement was observed for MEK2, which appears to be nonessential for thymocyte differentiation and T-cell-receptor-induced proliferation and apoptosis. Altogether, our findings demonstrate that MEK2 is not necessary for the normal development of the embryo and T-cell lineages, suggesting that the loss of MEK2 can be compensated for by MEK1.
The Raf-MEK-ERK pathway is commonly activated in human cancers, largely attributable to the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs) being a common downstream target of growth factor receptors, Ras, and Raf. Elevation of these up-stream signals occurs frequently in a variety of malignancies and ERK kinases play critical roles in promoting cell proliferation. Therefore, inhibition of MEK-mediated ERK activation is very appealing in cancer therapy. Consequently, numerous MEK inhibitors have been developed over the years. However, clinical trials have yet to produce overwhelming support for using MEK inhibitors in cancer therapy. Although complex reasons may have contributed to this outcome, an alternative possibility is that the MEK-ERK pathway may not solely provide proliferation signals to malignancies, the central scientific rationale in developing MEK inhibitors for cancer therapy. Recent developments may support this alternative possibility. Accumulating evidence now demonstrated that the MEK-ERK pathway contributes to the proper execution of cellular DNA damage response (DDR), a major pathway of tumor suppression. During DDR, the MEK-ERK pathway is commonly activated, which facilitates the proper activation of DDR checkpoints to prevent cell division. Inhibition of MEK-mediated ERK activation, therefore, compromises checkpoint activation. As a result, cells may continue to proliferate in the presence of DNA lesions, leading to the accumulation of mutations and thereby promoting tumorigenesis. Alternatively, reduction in checkpoint activation may prevent efficient repair of DNA damages, which may cause apoptosis or cell catastrophe, thereby enhancing chemotherapy’s efficacy. This review summarizes our current understanding of the participation of the ERK kinases in DDR.
ERK1/2 kinases; DNA damage response (DDR); checkpoint activation; ATM; ATR.
Cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome (CFCS) is a rare disease characterized by mental retardation, facial dysmorphisms, ectodermal abnormalities, heart defects and developmental delay. CFCS is genetically heterogeneous and mutations in the KRAS, BRAF, MAP2K1 (MEK1) and MAP2K2 (MEK2) genes, encoding for components of the RAS–mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathway, have been identified in up to 90% of cases. Here we screened a cohort of 33 individuals with CFCS for MEK1 and MEK2 gene mutations to further explore their molecular spectrum in this disorder, and to analyze genotype–phenotype correlations. Three MEK1 and two MEK2 mutations were detected in six patients. Two missense MEK1 (L42F and Y130H) changes and one in-frame MEK2 (K63_E66del) deletion had not been reported earlier. All mutations were localized within exon 2 or 3. Together with the available records, the present data document that MEK1 mutations are relatively more frequent than those in MEK2, with exons 2 and 3 being mutational hot spots in both genes. Mutational analysis of the affected MEK1 and MEK2 exons did not reveal occurrence of mutations among 75 patients with Noonan syndrome, confirming the low prevalence of MEK gene defects in this disorder. Clinical review of known individuals with MEK1/MEK2 mutations suggests that these patients show dysmorphic features, ectodermal abnormalities and cognitive deficit similar to what was observed in BRAF-mutated patients and in the general CFCS population. Conversely, congenital heart defects, particularly mitral valve and septal defects, and ocular anomalies seem to be less frequent among MEK1/MEK2 mutation-positive patients.
cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome; MEK1; MEK2; BRAF
Key molecules involved in notochord differentiation and function have been identified through genetic analysis in zebrafish and mice, but MEK1 and 2 have so far not been implicated in this process due to early lethality (Mek1-/-) and functional redundancy (Mek2-/-) in the knockout animals.
Here, we reveal a potential role for Mek1/2 during notochord development by using the small molecule Mek1/2 inhibitor U0126 which blocks phosphorylation of the Mek1/2 target gene Erk1/2 in vivo. Applying the inhibitor from early gastrulation until the 18-somite stage produces a specific and consistent phenotype with lack of dark pigmentation, shorter tail and an abnormal, undulated notochord. Using morphological analysis, in situ hybridization, immunhistochemistry, TUNEL staining and electron microscopy, we demonstrate that in treated embryos the chordamesoderm to notochord transition is disrupted and identify disorganization in the medial layer of the perinotochordal basement mebrane as the probable cause of the undulations and bulges in the notochord. We also examined and excluded FGF as the upstream signal during this process.
Using the small chemical U0126, we have established a novel link between MAPK-signaling and notochord differentiation. Our phenotypic analysis suggests a potential connection between the MAPK-pathway, the COPI-mediated intracellular transport and/or the copper-dependent posttranslational regulatory processes during notochord differentiation.
Docking sites on targets of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) facilitate accurate and efficient substrate phosphorylation. MAPK/ERK kinases (MEKs, or MKKs), the upstream regulators of MAPKs, also contain N-terminal MAPK-docking sites, or ‘D-sites’; however, the in vivo functions of MEK D-sites are incompletely understood. Here we found that the ability of constitutively-active human MEK1 and MEK2 to stimulate ERK phosphorylation and to induce the neoplastic transformation of NIH 3T3 cells required the integrity of the D-site. In addition, D-site mutants of otherwise wild-type MEK1/2 were unable to anchor unphosphorylated ERK2 in the cytoplasm. ERK activation, cytoplasmic anchoring and release were completely retained in ‘swap’ mutants in which MEK2’s D-site was replaced with the D-site of MEK1 or yeast Ste7. Furthermore, these abilities were significantly retained when MEK2’s D-site was moved to its C-terminus, or replaced by an unrelated MAPK-binding domain taken from the Ets-1 transcription factor. We conclude that the D-sites in MEKs are crucial for the activation of their cognate MAPKs in vivo, and that their primary function is to tether their cognate MAPKs near the MEK’s kinase domain. This proximity effect is sufficient to explain the contribution that the D-site interaction makes to several biologically important signaling events.
Mitogen-activated protein kinases; Signal transduction; Phosphorylation; Binding sites; Protein binding
Raf-1 is a serine/threonine kinase which is essential in cell growth and differentiation. Tyrosine kinase oncogenes and receptors and p21ras can activate Raf-1, and recent studies have suggested that Raf-1 functions upstream of MEK (MAP/ERK kinase), which phosphorylates and activates ERK. To determine whether or not Raf-1 directly activates MEK, we developed an in vitro assay with purified recombinant proteins. Epitope-tagged versions of Raf-1 and MEK and kinase-inactive mutants of each protein were expressed in Sf9 cells, and ERK1 was purified as a glutathione S-transferase fusion protein from bacteria. Raf-1 purified from Sf9 cells which had been coinfected with v-src or v-ras was able to phosphorylate kinase-active and kinase-inactive MEK. A kinase-inactive version of Raf-1 purified from cells that had been coinfected with v-src or v-ras was not able to phosphorylate MEK. Raf-1 phosphorylation of MEK activated it, as judged by its ability to stimulate the phosphorylation of myelin basic protein by glutathione S-transferase-ERK1. We conclude that MEK is a direct substrate of Raf-1 and that the activation of MEK by Raf-1 is due to phosphorylation by Raf-1, which is sufficient for MEK activation. We also tested the ability of protein kinase C to activate Raf-1 and found that, although protein kinase C phosphorylation of Raf-1 was able to stimulate its autokinase activity, it did not stimulate its ability to phosphorylate MEK.
Specific inhibitors of mitogen-activated protein kinase/extra-cellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) kinase (MEK) have been developed that efficiently inhibit the oncogenic RAF-MEK-ERK pathway. We used a systems-based approach to identify breast cancer subtypes particularly susceptible to MEK inhibitors and to understand molecular mechanisms conferring resistance to such compounds. Basal-type breast cancer cells were found to be particularly susceptible to growth inhibition by small-molecule MEK inhibitors. Activation of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) pathway in response to MEK inhibition through a negative MEK-epidermal growth factor receptor-PI3K feedback loop was found to limit efficacy. Interruption of this feedback mechanism by targeting MEK and PI3K produced synergistic effects, including induction of apoptosis and, in some cell lines, cell cycle arrest and protection from apoptosis induced by proapoptotic agents. These findings enhance our understanding of the interconnectivity of oncogenic signal transduction circuits and have implications for the design of future clinical trials of MEK inhibitors in breast cancer by guiding patient selection and suggesting rational combination therapies.
Mammalian MEK1 and MEK2 contain a proline-rich (PR) sequence that is absent both from the yeast homologs Ste7 and Byr1 and from a recently cloned activator of the JNK/stress-activated protein kinases, SEK1/MKK4. Since this PR sequence occurs in MEKs that are regulated by Raf family enzymes but is missing from MEKs and SEKs activated independently of Raf, we sought to investigate the role of this sequence in MEK1 and MEK2 regulation and function. Deletion of the PR sequence from MEK1 blocked the ability of MEK1 to associate with members of the Raf family and markedly attenuated activation of the protein in vivo following growth factor stimulation. In addition, this sequence was necessary for efficient activation of MEK1 in vitro by B-Raf but dispensable for activation by a novel MEK1 activator which we have previously detected in fractionated fibroblast extracts. Furthermore, we found that a phosphorylation site within the PR sequence of MEK1 was required for sustained MEK1 activity in response to serum stimulation of quiescent fibroblasts. Consistent with this observation, we observed that MEK2, which lacks a phosphorylation site at the corresponding position, was activated only transiently following serum stimulation. Finally, we found that deletion of the PR sequence from a constitutively activated MEK1 mutant rendered the protein nontransforming in Rat1 fibroblasts. These observations indicate a critical role for the PR sequence in directing specific protein-protein interactions important for the activation, inactivation, and downstream functioning of the MEKs.
D-sites are a class of MAPK-docking sites that have been found in many MAPK regulators and substrates. A single functional, high affinity D-site has been identified near the N terminus of each of the MAPK kinases (MKKs or MEKs) MEK1, MEK2, MKK3, MKK4, and MKK6. Here we demonstrated that MKK7 recognizes its target JNK by a novel mechanism involving a partially cooperative interaction of three low affinity D-sites in the N-terminal domain of MKK7. Mutations of the conserved residues within any one of the three docking sites (D1, D2, and D3) disrupted the ability of the N-terminal domain of MKK7β to bind JNK1 by about 50–70%. Moreover, mutation of any two of the three D-sites reduced binding by about 80–90%, and mutation of all three reduced binding by 95%. Full-length MKK7 containing combined D1/D2 mutations was compromised for binding to JNK1 and exhibited reduced JNK1 kinase activity when compared with wild-type MKK7. Peptide versions of the D-sites from MKK4 or the JIP-1 scaffold protein inhibited MKK7-JNK binding, suggesting that all three JNK regulators bind to the same region of JNK. Moreover, peptide versions of any of the three D-sites of MKK7 inhibited the ability of JNK1 and JNK2 to phosphorylate their transcription factor substrates c-Jun and ATF2, suggesting that D-site-containing substrates also compete with MKK7 for docking to JNK. Finally, MKK7-derived D-site peptides exhibited selective inhibition of JNK1 versus ERK2. We conclude that MKK7 contains three JNK-docking sites that interact to selectively bind JNK and contribute to JNK signal transmission and specificity.
Incubation of permeabilized cells with mitotic extracts results in extensive fragmentation of the pericentriolarly organized stacks of cisternae. The fragmented Golgi membranes are subsequently dispersed from the pericentriolar region. We have shown previously that this process requires the cytosolic protein mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 1 (MEK1). Extracellular signal–regulated kinase (ERK) 1 and ERK2, the known downstream targets of MEK1, are not required for this fragmentation (Acharya et al. 1998). We now provide evidence that MEK1 is specifically phosphorylated during mitosis. The mitotically phosphorylated MEK1, upon partial proteolysis with trypsin, generates a different peptide population compared with interphase MEK1. MEK1 cleaved with the lethal factor of the anthrax toxin can still be activated by its upstream mitotic kinases, and this form is fully active in the Golgi fragmentation process. We believe that the mitotic phosphorylation induces a change in the conformation of MEK1 and that this form of MEK1 recognizes Golgi membranes as a target compartment. Immunoelectron microscopy analysis reveals that treatment of permeabilized normal rat kidney (NRK) cells with mitotic extracts, treated with or without lethal factor, converts stacks of pericentriolar Golgi membranes into smaller fragments composed predominantly of tubuloreticular elements. These fragments are similar in distribution, morphology, and size to the fragments observed in the prometaphase/metaphase stage of the cell cycle in vivo.
mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 1; extracellular signal–regulated kinases; mitosis; Golgi fragmentation; phosphorylation
The recognition of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) by their upstream activators, MAPK/ERK kinases (MEKs), is crucial for the effective and accurate transmission of many signals. We demonstrated previously that the yeast MAPKs Kss1 and Fus3 bind with high affinity to the N terminus of the MEK Ste7, and proposed that a conserved motif in Ste7, the MAPK-docking site, mediates this interaction. Here we show that the corresponding sequences in human MEK1 and MEK2 are necessary and sufficient for the direct binding of the MAPKs ERK1 and ERK2. Mutations in MEK1, MEK2, or Ste7 that altered conserved residues in the docking site diminished binding of the cognate MAPKs. Furthermore, short peptides corresponding to the docking sites in these MEKs inhibited MEK1-mediated phosphorylation of ERK2 in vitro. In yeast cells, docking-defective alleles of Ste7 were modestly compromised in their ability to transmit the mating pheromone signal. This deficiency was dramatically enhanced when the ability of the Ste5 scaffold protein to associate with components of the MAPK cascade was also compromised. Thus, both the MEK-MAPK docking interaction and binding to the Ste5 scaffold make mutually reinforcing contributions to the efficiency of signaling by this MAPK cascade in vivo.
Oncogenic mutations in the BRAF gene are detected in ∼7% of human cancer samples with a particularly high frequency of mutation in malignant melanomas. Over 40 different missense BRAF mutations have been found, but the vast majority (>90%) represent a single nucleotide change resulting in a valine → glutamate mutation at residue 600 (V600EBRAF). In cells cultured in vitro, V600EBRAF is able to stimulate endogenous MEK [MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase)/ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase) kinase] and ERK phosphorylation leading to an increase in cell proliferation, cell survival, transformation, tumorigenicity, invasion and vascular development. Many of these hallmarks of cancer can be reversed by treatment of cells with siRNA (small interfering RNA) to BRAF or by inhibiting MEK, indicating that BRAF and MEK are attractive therapeutic targets in cancer samples with BRAF mutations. In order to fully understand the role of oncogenic BRAF in cancer development in vivo as well as to test the in vivo efficacy of anti-BRAF or anti-MEK therapies, GEMMs (genetically engineered mouse models) have been generated in which expression of oncogenic BRaf is conditionally dependent on the Cre recombinase. The delivery/activation of the Cre recombinase can be regulated in both a temporal and spatial manner and therefore these mouse models can be used to recapitulate the somatic mutation of BRAF that occurs in different tissues in the development of human cancer. The data so far obtained following Cre-mediated activation in haemopoietic tissue and the lung indicate that V600EBRAF mutation can drive tumour initiation and that its primary effect is to induce high levels of cyclin D1-mediated cell proliferation. However, hallmarks of OIS (oncogene-induced senescence) are evident that restrain further development of the tumour.
BRAF; cancer; Cre-Lox; genetically engineered mouse model; proliferation; senescence
In primary mammalian cells, oncogenic ras induces premature senescence, depending on an active MEK-extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway. It has been unclear how activation of the mitogenic MEK-ERK pathway by ras can confer growth inhibition. In this study, we have found that the stress-activated MAPK, p38, is also activated during the onset of ras-induced senescence in primary human fibroblasts. Constitutive activation of p38 by active MKK3 or MKK6 induces senescence. Oncogenic ras fails to provoke senescence when p38 activity is inhibited, suggesting that p38 activation is essential for ras-induced senescence. Furthermore, we have demonstrated that p38 activity is stimulated by ras as a result of an activated MEK-ERK pathway. Following activation of MEK and ERK, expression of oncogenic ras leads to the accumulation of active MKK3/6 and p38 activation in a MEK-dependent fashion and subsequently induces senescence. Active MEK1 induces the same set of changes and provokes senescence relying on active p38. Therefore, oncogenic ras provokes premature senescence by sequentially activating the MEK-ERK and MKK3/6-p38 pathways in normal, primary cells. These studies have defined the molecular events within the ras signaling cascade that lead to premature senescence and, thus, have provided new insights into how ras confers oncogenic transformation in primary cells.
Four distinct MAP kinase signaling pathways involving 7 MEK enzymes have been identified. MEK1 and MEK2 are the prototype members of MEK family proteins. Several MEK inhibitors are in clinical trials. Trametinib is being evaluated by FDA for the treatment of metastatic melanoma with BRAF V600 mutation. Selumetinib has been studied in combination with docetaxel in phase II randomized trial in previously treated patients with advanced lung cancer. Selumetinib group had better response rate and progression-free survival. This review also summarized new MEK inhibitors in clinical development, including pimasertib, refametinib, PD-0325901, TAK733, MEK162 (ARRY 438162), RO5126766, WX-554, RO4987655 (CH4987655), GDC-0973 (XL518), and AZD8330.
We have recently identified the Raf kinase inhibitor protein (RKIP) as a physiological endogenous inhibitor of the Raf-1/MEK/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway. RKIP interfered with MEK phosphorylation and activation by Raf-1, resulting in the suppression of both Raf-1-induced transformation and AP-1-dependent transcription. Here we report the molecular mechanism of RKIP's inhibitory function. RKIP can form ternary complexes with Raf-1, MEK, and ERK. However, whereas MEK and ERK can simultaneously associate with RKIP, Raf-1 binding to RKIP and that of MEK are mutually exclusive. RKIP is able to dissociate a Raf-1–MEK complex and behaves as a competitive inhibitor of MEK phosphorylation. Mapping of the binding domains showed that MEK and Raf-1 bind to overlapping sites in RKIP, whereas MEK and RKIP associate with different domains in Raf-1, and Raf-1 and RKIP bind to different sites in MEK. Both the Raf-1 and the MEK binding sites in RKIP need to be destroyed in order to relieve RKIP-mediated suppression of the Raf-1/MEK/ERK pathway, indicating that binding of either Raf-1 or MEK is sufficient for inhibition. The properties of RKIP reveal the specific sequestration of interacting components as a novel motif in the cell's repertoire for the regulation of signaling pathways.
Stimulation of T cells with antibodies directed towards the T cell receptor complex results in the activation of mitogen-associated protein kinase (MAPK). Two pathways have been described in other cell types that can lead to MAPK activation. One of these pathways involves the activation of Ras, leading to the activation of Raf-1, and the subsequent activation of MEK (MAPK or ERK kinase). The contribution of this pathway in T cells for anti-CD3 or phorbol myristate acetate (PMA)-mediated MAPK activation was examined. We detected the kinase activities of Raf-1 and MEK towards their substrates (MEK for Raf-1 and MAPK for MEK) in this pathway leading to the activation of MAPK. Stimulation of the T cells with either anti-CD3 antibody or PMA resulted in a rapid activation of both Ras and Raf-1. MEK activity towards kinase-active or -inactive recombinant MAPK also increased upon stimulation. In addition, both MAPK and p90rsk were activated in these cells. We suggest that activation of MAPK and the subsequent activation of ribosomal S6 kinase (p90rsk) occurs by the Ras/Raf-1/MEK cascade in T lymphocytes stimulated by ligation of the T cell receptor complex.
The mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway comprises several key signaling components and phosphorylation events that play important role in tumorigenesis. These activated kinases transmit extracellular signals that regulate cell growth, differentiation, proliferation, apoptosis and migration functions. Alteration of the RAS-RAF-MEK-ERK-MAPK (RAS-MAPK) pathway has frequently been reported in human cancer as a result of abnormal activation of receptor tyrosine kinases or gain-of-function mutations mainly in the RAS or RAF genes. Accordingly, these pathways are considered a potential therapeutic target for cancer treatment. Recently, several small-molecule inhibitors targeting this pathway have been developed and are currently being tested in clinical trials.
This paper focuses on the biological role of the RAS-MAPK pathway, the consequence of its disregulation, and the development of small-molecule inhibitors. The rationale for targeting the RAS-MAPK pathway will be reviewed here along with a discussion of the application and the results of various inhibitory molecules as anticancer agents in clinical trials.
The RAS-MAPK pathway mediates cellular responses to growth signals and is often deregulated in human cancer. Activating mutations in the RAS and BRAF genes have been frequently identified in a wide range of cancers. Inhibitors of MEK and particularly of RAF kinases, have been effective in clinical trials with manageable side effects. RAS and BRAF genes need to be analyzed for mutations as markers of response to treatments and to avoid paradoxical effects. Further characterization of the RAS-MAPK molecular mechanisms regulation in malignant cells or underlying the acquired resistance to RAF inhibitors will facilitate development of novel combination therapies.
mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK); extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK); MAP kinase kinase (MEK); RAS; RAF; inhibitors; targeted therapies
The Ras/MAPK pathway is critical for human development and plays a central role in the formation and progression of most cancers. Children born with germ-line mutations in BRAF, MEK1 or MEK2 develop cardio-facio-cutaneous (CFC) syndrome, an autosomal dominant syndrome characterized by a distinctive facial appearance, heart defects, skin and hair abnormalities and mental retardation. CFC syndrome mutations in BRAF promote both kinase-activating and kinase-impaired variants. CFC syndrome has a progressive phenotype, and the availability of clinically active inhibitors of the MAPK pathway prompts the important question as to whether such inhibitors might be therapeutically effective in the treatment of CFC syndrome. To study the developmental effects of CFC mutant alleles in vivo, we have expressed a panel of 28 BRAF and MEK alleles in zebrafish embryos to assess the function of human disease alleles and available chemical inhibitors of this pathway. We find that both kinase-activating and kinase-impaired CFC mutant alleles promote the equivalent developmental outcome when expressed during early development and that treatment of CFC-zebrafish embryos with inhibitors of the FGF-MAPK pathway can restore normal early development. Importantly, we find a developmental window in which treatment with a MEK inhibitor can restore the normal early development of the embryo, without the additional, unwanted developmental effects of the drug.
The extracellular signal–regulated kinase (ERK)–mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway provides a major link between the cell surface and nucleus to control proliferation and differentiation. However, its in vivo role in skeletal development is unknown. A transgenic approach was used to establish a role for this pathway in bone. MAPK stimulation achieved by selective expression of constitutively active MAPK/ERK1 (MEK-SP) in osteoblasts accelerated in vitro differentiation of calvarial cells, as well as in vivo bone development, whereas dominant-negative MEK1 was inhibitory. The involvement of the RUNX2 transcription factor in this response was established in two ways: (a) RUNX2 phosphorylation and transcriptional activity were elevated in calvarial osteoblasts from TgMek-sp mice and reduced in cells from TgMek-dn mice, and (b) crossing TgMek-sp mice with Runx2+/− animals partially rescued the hypomorphic clavicles and undemineralized calvaria associated with Runx2 haploinsufficiency, whereas TgMek-dn; Runx2+/− mice had a more severe skeletal phenotype. This work establishes an important in vivo function for the ERK–MAPK pathway in bone that involves stimulation of RUNX2 phosphorylation and transcriptional activity.
The alternative splicing of the mek5 gene gives rise to two isoforms. MEK5β lacks an extended N terminus present in MEK5α. Comparison of their activities led us to identify a novel mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) docking site in the N terminus of MEK5α that is distinct from the consensus motif identified in the other MAPK kinases. It consists of a cluster of acidic residues at position 61 and positions 63 to 66. The formation of the MEK5/extracellular signal-regulated kinase 5 (ERK5) complex is critical for MEK5 to activate ERK5, to increase transcription via MEF2, and to enhance cellular survival in response to osmotic stress. Certain mutations in the ERK5 docking site that prevent MEK5/ERK5 interaction also abrogate the ability of MEKK2 to bind and activate MEK5. However, the identification of MEK5α mutants with selective binding defect demonstrates that the MEK5/ERK5 interaction does not rely on the binding of MEK5α to MEKK2 via their respective PB1 domains. Altogether these results establish that the N terminus of MEK5α is critical for the specific organization of the components of the ERK5 signaling pathway.
Growth factor-dependent kinases, such as phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI 3-kinase) and Raf kinases, have been implicated in the suppression of apoptosis. We have recently established Rat-1 fibroblast cell lines overexpressing B-Raf, leading to activation of the MEK/Erk mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway. Overexpression of B-Raf confers resistance to apoptosis induced by growth factor withdrawal or PI 3-kinase inhibition. This is accompanied by constitutive activation of Erk without effects on the PI 3-kinase/Akt pathway. The activity of MEK is essential for cell survival mediated by B-Raf overexpression, since either treatment with the specific MEK inhibitor PD98059 or expression of a dominant inhibitory MEK mutant blocks the antiapoptotic activity of B-Raf. Activation of MEK is not only necessary but also sufficient for cell survival because overexpression of constitutively activated MEK, Ras, or Raf-1, like B-Raf, prevents apoptosis after growth factor deprivation. Overexpression of B-Raf did not interfere with the release of cytochrome c from mitochondria after growth factor deprivation. However, the addition of cytochrome c to cytosols of cells overexpressing B-Raf failed to induce caspase activation. It thus appears that the B-Raf/MEK/Erk pathway confers protection against apoptosis at the level of cytosolic caspase activation, downstream of the release of cytochrome c from mitochondria.
Chronic and juvenile myelomonocytic leukemias (CMML and JMML) are aggressive myeloproliferative neoplasms that are incurable with conventional chemotherapy. Mutations that deregulate Ras signaling play a central pathogenic role in both disorders, and Mx1-Cre, KrasLSL-G12D mice that express the Kras oncogene develop a fatal disease that closely mimics these two leukemias in humans. Activated Ras controls multiple downstream effectors, but the specific pathways that mediate the leukemogenic effects of hyperactive Ras are unknown. We used PD0325901, a highly selective pharmacological inhibitor of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MEK), a downstream component of the Ras signaling network, to address how deregulated Raf/MEK/ERK signaling drives neoplasm formation in Mx1-Cre, KrasLSL-G12D mice. PD0325901 treatment induced a rapid and sustained reduction in leukocyte counts, enhanced erythropoiesis, prolonged mouse survival, and corrected the aberrant proliferation and differentiation of bone marrow progenitor cells. These responses were due to direct effects of PD0325901 on Kras mutant cells rather than to stimulation of normal hematopoietic cell proliferation. Consistent with the in vivo response, inhibition of MEK reversed the cytokine hypersensitivity characteristic of KrasG12D hematopoietic progenitor cells in vitro. Our data demonstrate that deregulated Raf/MEK/ERK signaling is integral to the growth of Kras-mediated myeloproliferative neoplasias, and further suggest that MEK inhibition could be a useful way to ameliorate functional hematologic abnormalities in patients with CMML and JMML.