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1.  SYK Is a Critical Regulator of FLT3 In Acute Myeloid Leukemia 
Cancer cell  2014;25(2):226-242.
SUMMARY
Cooperative dependencies between mutant oncoproteins and wild-type proteins are critical in cancer pathogenesis and therapy resistance. Although spleen tyrosine kinase (SYK) has been implicated in hematologic malignancies, it is rarely mutated. We used kinase activity profiling to identify collaborators of SYK in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and determined that FMS-like tyrosine kinase 3 (FLT3) is transactivated by SYK via direct binding. Highly activated SYK is predominantly found in FLT3-ITD positive AML and cooperates with FLT3-ITD to activate MYC transcriptional programs. FLT3-ITD AML cells are more vulnerable to SYK suppression than FLT3 wild-type counterparts. In a FLT3-ITD in vivo model, SYK is indispensable for myeloproliferative disease (MPD) development, and SYK overexpression promotes overt transformation to AML and resistance to FLT3-ITD-targeted therapy.
SIGNIFICANCE
Although imatinib therapy has been paradigm shifting for treating patients with BCR-ABL-rearranged chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), the application of targeted kinase inhibitors to treating AML has been a more complex undertaking. In this study, we identified an oncogenic partnership between the most commonly mutated kinase in AML, FLT3, and the cytoplasmic kinase SYK. SYK transactivates FLT3 by a direct physical interaction, is critical for the development of FLT3-ITD-induced myeloid neoplasia, and is more highly activated in primary human FLT3-ITD-positive AML. These studies also raise the possibility of SYK activation as a mechanism of resistance to FLT3 inhibitors, suggest FLT3 mutant AML as a subtype for SYK inhibitor testing, and nominate the clinical testing of SYK and FLT3 inhibitor combinations.
doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2014.01.022
PMCID: PMC4106711  PMID: 24525236
SYK; FLT3-ITD; AML; MYC; MPD; tyrosine kinase
2.  Triplication of a 21q22 region contributes to B cell transformation through HMGN1 overexpression and loss of histone H3 lysine 27 trimethylation 
Nature genetics  2014;46(6):618-623.
Down syndrome confers a 20-fold increased risk of B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL)1 and polysomy 21 is the most frequent somatic aneuploidy amongst all B-ALLs2. Yet, the mechanistic links between chr.21 triplication and B-ALL remain undefined. Here we show that germline triplication of only 31 genes orthologous to human chr.21q22 confers murine progenitor B cell self-renewal in vitro, maturation defects in vivo, and B-ALL with either BCR-ABL or CRLF2 with activated JAK2. Chr.21q22 triplication suppresses H3K27me3 in progenitor B cells and B-ALLs, and “bivalent” genes with both H3K27me3 and H3K4me3 at their promoters in wild-type progenitor B cells are preferentially overexpressed in triplicated cells. Strikingly, human B-ALLs with polysomy 21 are distinguished by their overexpression of genes marked with H3K27me3 in multiple cell types. Finally, overexpression of HMGN1, a nucleosome remodeling protein encoded on chr.21q223–5, suppresses H3K27me3 and promotes both B cell proliferation in vitro and B-ALL in vivo.
doi:10.1038/ng.2949
PMCID: PMC4040006  PMID: 24747640
3.  Targeting Csnk1a1 in leukemia 
doi:10.1084/jem.2114insight1
PMCID: PMC3978273  PMID: 24711612
4.  An epigenetic mechanism of resistance to targeted therapy in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia 
Nature genetics  2014;46(4):364-370.
The identification of activating NOTCH1 mutations in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) led to clinical testing of γ-secretase inhibitors (GSI) that prevent NOTCH1 activation1–3. However, responses have been transient4,5, suggesting that resistance limits clinical efficacy. Here we modeled T-ALL resistance, identifying GSI-tolerant ‘persister’ cells that expand in the absence of NOTCH signaling. Rare persisters are already present in naïve T-ALL populations, and the reversibility of the phenotype suggests an epigenetic mechanism. Relative to GSI-sensitive cells, persisters activate distinct signaling and transcriptional programs, and exhibit chromatin compaction. A knockdown screen identified chromatin regulators essential for persister viability, including BRD4. BRD4 binds enhancers near critical T-ALL genes, including MYC and BCL2. The BRD4 inhibitor JQ1 down-regulates these targets and induces growth arrest and apoptosis in persisters, at doses well tolerated by GSI-sensitive cells. Consistently, the GSI-JQ1 combination was found to be effective against primary human leukemias in vivo. Our findings establish a role for epigenetic heterogeneity in leukemia resistance that may be addressed by incorporating epigenetic modulators in combination therapy.
doi:10.1038/ng.2913
PMCID: PMC4086945  PMID: 24584072
5.  Molecular rationale for the use of PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway inhibitors in combination with crizotinib in ALK-mutated neuroblastoma 
Oncotarget  2014;5(18):8737-8749.
Mutations in the ALK tyrosine kinase receptor gene represent important therapeutic targets in neuroblastoma, yet their clinical translation has been challenging. The ALKF1174L mutation is sensitive to the ALK inhibitor crizotinib only at high doses and mediates acquired resistance to crizotinib in ALK-translocated cancers. We have shown that the combination of crizotinib and an inhibitor of downstream signaling induces a favorable response in transgenic mice bearing ALKF1174L/MYCN-positive neuroblastoma. Here, we investigated the molecular basis of this effect and assessed whether a similar strategy would be effective in ALK-mutated tumors lacking MYCN overexpression. We show that in ALK-mutated, MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma cells, crizotinib alone does not affect mTORC1 activity as indicated by persistent RPS6 phosphorylation. Combined treatment with crizotinib and an ATP-competitive mTOR inhibitor abrogated RPS6 phosphorylation, leading to reduced tumor growth and prolonged survival in ALKF1174L/MYCN-positive models compared to single agent treatment. By contrast, this combination, while inducing mTORC1 downregulation, caused reciprocal upregulation of PI3K activity in ALK-mutated cells expressing wild-type MYCN. Here, an inhibitor with potency against both mTOR and PI3K was more effective in promoting cytotoxicity when combined with crizotinib. Our findings should enable a more precise selection of molecularly targeted agents for patients with ALK-mutated tumors.
PMCID: PMC4226718  PMID: 25228590
ALK; neuroblastoma; crizotinib; mTOR inhibitor; MYCN
6.  In Vivo RNA Interference Screening Identifies a Leukemia-Specific Dependence on Integrin Beta 3 Signaling 
Cancer cell  2013;24(1):45-58.
SUMMARY
We used an in vivo short hairpin RNA (shRNA) screening approach to identify genes that are essential for MLL-AF9 acute myeloid leukemia (AML). We found that Integrin Beta 3 (Itgb3) is essential for murine leukemia cells in vivo, and for human leukemia cells in xenotransplantation studies. In leukemia cells, Itgb3 knockdown impaired homing, downregulated LSC transcriptional programs, and induced differentiation via the intracellular kinase, Syk. In contrast, loss of Itgb3 in normal HSPCs did not affect engraftment, reconstitution, or differentiation. Finally, we confirmed that Itgb3 is dispensable for normal hematopoiesis and required for leukemogenesis using an Itgb3 knockout mouse model. Our results establish the significance of the Itgb3 signaling pathway as a potential therapeutic target in AML.
doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2013.05.004
PMCID: PMC3746037  PMID: 23770013
7.  Selective HDAC1/HDAC2 Inhibitors Induce Neuroblastoma Differentiation 
Chemistry & biology  2013;20(5):713-725.
Summary
While cytotoxic chemotherapy remains the hallmark of cancer treatment, intensive regimens fall short in many malignancies, including high-risk neuroblastoma. One alternative strategy is to therapeutically promote tumor differentiation. We created a gene expression signature to measure neuroblast maturation, adapted it to a high-throughput platform, and screened a diversity oriented synthesis-generated small-molecule library for differentiation inducers. We identified BRD8430, containing a nine-membered lactam, an ortho-amino anilide functionality, and three chiral centers, as a selective Class I histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor (HDAC1>2>3). Further investigation demonstrated that selective HDAC1/HDAC2 inhibition using compounds or RNA interference induced differentiation and decreased viability in neuroblastoma cell lines. Combined treatment with 13-cis retinoic acid augmented these effects and enhanced activation of retinoic acid signaling. Therefore, by applying a chemical genomic screening approach we identified selective HDAC1/HDAC2 inhibition as a strategy to induce neuroblastoma differentiation.
doi:10.1016/j.chembiol.2013.03.020
PMCID: PMC3919449  PMID: 23706636
8.  SYK Regulates mTOR Signaling in AML 
Leukemia  2013;27(11):2118-2128.
Spleen Tyrosine Kinase (SYK) was recently identified as a new target in acute myeloid leukemia (AML); however, its mechanistic role in this disease is poorly understood. Based on the known interaction between SYK and mTOR signaling in lymphoma, we hypothesized that SYK may regulate mTOR signaling in AML. Both small-molecule inhibition of SYK and SYK-directed shRNA suppressed mTOR and its downstream signaling effectors, as well as its upstream activator, AKT. Moreover, the inhibition of multiple nodes of the PI3K signaling pathway enhanced the effects of SYK suppression on AML cell viability and differentiation. Evaluation of the collateral MAPK pathway revealed a heterogeneous response to SYK inhibition in AML with down-regulation of MEK and ERK phosphorylation in some AML cell lines but a paradoxical increase in MEK/ERK phosphorylation in RAS-mutated AML. These studies reveal SYK as a regulator of mTOR and MAPK signaling in AML and demonstrate that inhibition of PI3K pathway activity enhances the effects of SYK inhibition on AML cell viability and differentiation.
doi:10.1038/leu.2013.89
PMCID: PMC4028963  PMID: 23535559
AML; SYK; mTOR; differentiation therapy; RPS6; 4E-BP1; MAPK
9.  Complementary Genomic Screens Identify SERCA as a Therapeutic Target in NOTCH1 Mutated Cancer 
Cancer cell  2013;23(3):390-405.
SUMMARY
Notch1 is a rational therapeutic target in several human cancers, but as a transcriptional regulator, it poses a drug discovery challenge. To identify Notch1 modulators, we performed two cell-based, high-throughput screens for small-molecule inhibitors and cDNA enhancers of a NOTCH1 allele bearing a leukemia-associated mutation. SERCA calcium channels emerged at the intersection of these complementary screens. SERCA inhibition preferentially impairs the maturation and activity of mutated Notch1 receptors and induces a G0/G1 arrest in NOTCH1-mutated human leukemia cells. A small-molecule SERCA inhibitor has on-target activity in two mouse models of human leukemia and interferes with Notch signaling in Drosophila. These studies “credential” SERCA as a therapeutic target in cancers associated with NOTCH1 mutations.
doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2013.01.015
PMCID: PMC3709972  PMID: 23434461
10.  Targeting MYCN in Neuroblastoma by BET Bromodomain Inhibition 
Cancer discovery  2013;3(3):308-323.
Bromodomain inhibition comprises a promising therapeutic strategy in cancer, particularly for hematologic malignancies. To date, however, genomic biomarkers to direct clinical translation have been lacking. We conducted a cell-based screen of genetically-defined cancer cell lines using a prototypical inhibitor of BET bromodomains. Integration of genetic features with chemosensitivity data revealed a robust correlation between MYCN amplification and sensitivity to bromodomain inhibition. We characterized the mechanistic and translational significance of this finding in neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer with frequent amplification of MYCN. Genome-wide expression analysis demonstrated downregulation of the MYCN transcriptional program accompanied by suppression of MYCN transcription. Functionally, bromodomain-mediated inhibition of MYCN impaired growth and induced apoptosis in neuroblastoma. BRD4 knock-down phenocopied these effects, establishing BET bromodomains as transcriptional regulators of MYCN. BET inhibition conferred a significant survival advantage in three in vivo neuroblastoma models, providing a compelling rationale for developing BET bromodomain inhibitors in patients with neuroblastoma.
doi:10.1158/2159-8290.CD-12-0418
PMCID: PMC3672953  PMID: 23430699
BET bromodomain inhibitor; JQ1; MYCN; neuroblastoma; BRD4
11.  Mutational heterogeneity in cancer and the search for new cancer genes 
Nature  2013;499(7457):214-218.
Major international projects are now underway aimed at creating a comprehensive catalog of all genes responsible for the initiation and progression of cancer. These studies involve sequencing of matched tumor–normal samples followed by mathematical analysis to identify those genes in which mutations occur more frequently than expected by random chance. Here, we describe a fundamental problem with cancer genome studies: as the sample size increases, the list of putatively significant genes produced by current analytical methods burgeons into the hundreds. The list includes many implausible genes (such as those encoding olfactory receptors and the muscle protein titin), suggesting extensive false positive findings that overshadow true driver events. Here, we show that this problem stems largely from mutational heterogeneity and provide a novel analytical methodology, MutSigCV, for resolving the problem. We apply MutSigCV to exome sequences from 3,083 tumor-normal pairs and discover extraordinary variation in (i) mutation frequency and spectrum within cancer types, which shed light on mutational processes and disease etiology, and (ii) mutation frequency across the genome, which is strongly correlated with DNA replication timing and also with transcriptional activity. By incorporating mutational heterogeneity into the analyses, MutSigCV is able to eliminate most of the apparent artefactual findings and allow true cancer genes to rise to attention.
doi:10.1038/nature12213
PMCID: PMC3919509  PMID: 23770567
12.  New Approaches to Target T-ALL 
Frontiers in Oncology  2014;4:170.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common malignancy in children. Although it is now curable in 80–90% of cases, patients with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) experience a higher frequency of induction failure and early relapse. Despite aggressive treatment approaches, including transplantation and new salvage regimens, most children with relapsed T-ALL will not be cured. As such, we are in need of new targeted therapies for the disease. Recent advances in the molecular characterization of T-ALL have uncovered a number of new therapeutic targets. This review will summarize recent advancements in the study of inhibiting the NOTCH1, PI3K–AKT, and Cyclin D3:CDK4/6 pathways as therapeutic strategies for T-ALL. We will focus on pre-clinical studies supporting the testing of small-molecule inhibitors targeting these proteins and the rationale of combination therapies. Moreover, epigenetic approaches to modulate T-ALL are rapidly emerging. Here, we will discuss the data supporting the role of bromodomain and extra-terminal bromodomain inhibitors in human T-ALL.
doi:10.3389/fonc.2014.00170
PMCID: PMC4085879  PMID: 25072021
T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia; NOTCH1; cyclins; cyclin-dependent kinases; PI3K/AKT/mTOR; PI3K pathway inhibitors; BRD4; bromodomain inhibitors
13.  Targeting MYCN in Neuroblastoma by BET Bromodomain Inhibition 
Cancer discovery  2013;3(3):308-323.
Bromodomain inhibition comprises a promising therapeutic strategy in cancer, particularly for hematologic malignancies. To date, however, genomic biomarkers to direct clinical translation have been lacking. We conducted a cell-based screen of genetically-defined cancer cell lines using a prototypical inhibitor of BET bromodomains. Integration of genetic features with chemosensitivity data revealed a robust correlation between MYCN amplification and sensitivity to bromodomain inhibition. We characterized the mechanistic and translational significance of this finding in neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer with frequent amplification of MYCN. Genome-wide expression analysis demonstrated downregulation of the MYCN transcriptional program accompanied by suppression of MYCN transcription. Functionally, bromodomain-mediated inhibition of MYCN impaired growth and induced apoptosis in neuroblastoma. BRD4 knock-down phenocopied these effects, establishing BET bromodomains as transcriptional regulators of MYCN. BET inhibition conferred a significant survival advantage in three in vivo neuroblastoma models, providing a compelling rationale for developing BET bromodomain inhibitors in patients with neuroblastoma.
Significance
Biomarkers of response to small-molecule inhibitors of BET bromodomains, a new compound class with promising anti-cancer activity, have been lacking. Here, we reveal MYCN amplification as a strong genetic predictor of sensitivity to BET bromodomain inhibitors, demonstrate a mechanistic rationale for this finding, and provide a translational framework for clinical trial development of BET bromodomain inhibitors for pediatric patients with MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma.
doi:10.1158/2159-8290.CD-12-0418
PMCID: PMC3672953  PMID: 23430699
BET bromodomain inhibitor; JQ1; MYCN; neuroblastoma; BRD4
14.  The intersection of genetic and chemical genomic screens identifies GSK-3α as a target in human acute myeloid leukemia 
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common form of acute leukemia in adults. Long-term survival of patients with AML has changed little over the past decade, necessitating the identification and validation of new AML targets. Integration of genomic approaches with small-molecule and genetically based high-throughput screening holds the promise of improved discovery of candidate targets for cancer therapy. Here, we identified a role for glycogen synthase kinase 3α (GSK-3α) in AML by performing 2 independent small-molecule library screens and an shRNA screen for perturbations that induced a differentiation expression signature in AML cells. GSK-3 is a serine-threonine kinase involved in diverse cellular processes, including differentiation, signal transduction, cell cycle regulation, and proliferation. We demonstrated that specific loss of GSK-3α induced differentiation in AML by multiple measurements, including induction of gene expression signatures, morphological changes, and cell surface markers consistent with myeloid maturation. GSK-3α–specific suppression also led to impaired growth and proliferation in vitro, induction of apoptosis, loss of colony formation in methylcellulose, and anti-AML activity in vivo. Although the role of GSK-3β has been well studied in cancer development, these studies support a role for GSK-3α in AML.
doi:10.1172/JCI46465
PMCID: PMC3287215  PMID: 22326953
15.  Proteomic and Genetic Approaches Identify Syk as an AML Target 
Cancer cell  2009;16(4):281-294.
SUMMARY
Cell-based screening can facilitate rapid identification of compounds inducing complex cellular phenotypes. Advancing a compound toward the clinic, however, generally requires identification of precise mechanisms of action. We previously found that epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors induce acute myeloid leukemia (AML) differentiation via a non-EGFR mechanism. In this report, we integrated proteomic and RNAi-based strategies to identify their off-target anti-AML mechanism. These orthogonal approaches identified Syk as a target in AML. Genetic and pharmacological inactivation of Syk with a drug in clinical trial for other indications promoted differentiation of AML cells and attenuated leukemia growth in vivo. These results demonstrate the power of integrating diverse chemical, proteomic, and genomic screening approaches to identify therapeutic strategies for cancer.
doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2009.08.018
PMCID: PMC2803063  PMID: 19800574
16.  Phase II Study of Intermediate-Dose Cytarabine in Patients with Relapsed or Refractory Ewing Sarcoma: A Report from the Children's Oncology Group 
Pediatric blood & cancer  2009;52(3):324-327.
Background
Patients with relapsed or refractory Ewing sarcoma have a poor outcome with conventional therapies. Cytarabine decreases EWS/FLI1 protein levels in Ewing sarcoma cells and has demonstrated preclinical activity against Ewing sarcoma in vitro and in vivo. The purpose of this phase II clinical trial was to estimate the response rate of intermediate-dose cytarabine in patients with relapsed or refractory Ewing sarcoma.
Procedure
Patients with a histologic diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma were eligible if they were ≤ 30 years of age, had relapsed or refractory measurable disease, and met standard organ function requirements. Patients received cytarabine 500 mg/m2/dose intravenously over 2 hours every 12 hours for 10 doses with cycles repeated every 21 days. Response was assessed according to RECIST criteria.
Results
Ten patients (median age 20 years; 7 males) were treated. Only 5 patients had documented EWS/FLI1 translocated tumors. No objective responses were seen. One patient had stable disease for 5 cycles before developing progressive disease. All patients evaluable for hematologic toxicity developed grade 4 neutropenia and thrombocytopenia during protocol therapy. Patients were not able to receive therapy according to the planned 21-day cycles, with a median interval of 26.5 days.
Conclusions
Cytarabine at the dose and schedule utilized in this trial resulted in hematologic toxicity that limited delivery of this therapy. This regimen also had minimal activity in this patient population.
doi:10.1002/pbc.21822
PMCID: PMC2791370  PMID: 18989890
Ewing sarcoma; cytarabine; EWS/FLI1
17.  Characterization of Notch1 Antibodies That Inhibit Signaling of Both Normal and Mutated Notch1 Receptors 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(2):e9094.
Background
Notch receptors normally play a key role in guiding a variety of cell fate decisions during development and differentiation of metazoan organisms. On the other hand, dysregulation of Notch1 signaling is associated with many different types of cancer as well as tumor angiogenesis, making Notch1 a potential therapeutic target.
Principal Findings
Here we report the in vitro activities of inhibitory Notch1 monoclonal antibodies derived from cell-based and solid-phase screening of a phage display library. Two classes of antibodies were found, one directed against the EGF-repeat region that encompasses the ligand-binding domain (LBD), and the second directed against the activation switch of the receptor, the Notch negative regulatory region (NRR). The antibodies are selective for Notch1, inhibiting Jag2-dependent signaling by Notch1 but not by Notch 2 and 3 in reporter gene assays, with EC50 values as low as 5±3 nM and 0.13±0.09 nM for the LBD and NRR antibodies, respectively, and fail to recognize Notch4. While more potent, NRR antibodies are incomplete antagonists of Notch1 signaling. The antagonistic activity of LBD, but not NRR, antibodies is strongly dependent on the activating ligand. Both LBD and NRR antibodies bind to Notch1 on human tumor cell lines and inhibit the expression of sentinel Notch target genes, including HES1, HES5, and DTX1. NRR antibodies also strongly inhibit ligand-independent signaling in heterologous cells transiently expressing Notch1 receptors with diverse NRR “class I” point mutations, the most common type of mutation found in human T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). In contrast, NRR antibodies failed to antagonize Notch1 receptors bearing rare “class II” or “class III” mutations, in which amino acid insertions generate a duplicated or constitutively sensitive metalloprotease cleavage site. Signaling in T-ALL cell lines bearing class I mutations is partially refractory to inhibitory antibodies as compared to cell-penetrating gamma-secretase inhibitors.
Conclusions/Significance
Antibodies that compete with Notch1 ligand binding or that bind to the negative regulatory region can act as potent inhibitors of Notch1 signaling. These antibodies may have clinical utility for conditions in which inhibition of signaling by wild-type Notch1 is desired, but are likely to be of limited value for treatment of T-ALLs associated with aberrant Notch1 activation.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009094
PMCID: PMC2817004  PMID: 20161710
18.  High-throughput gene expression profiling of memory differentiation in primary human T cells 
BMC Immunology  2008;9:44.
Background
The differentiation of naive T and B cells into memory lymphocytes is essential for immunity to pathogens. Therapeutic manipulation of this cellular differentiation program could improve vaccine efficacy and the in vitro expansion of memory cells. However, chemical screens to identify compounds that induce memory differentiation have been limited by 1) the lack of reporter-gene or functional assays that can distinguish naive and memory-phenotype T cells at high throughput and 2) a suitable cell-line representative of naive T cells.
Results
Here, we describe a method for gene-expression based screening that allows primary naive and memory-phenotype lymphocytes to be discriminated based on complex genes signatures corresponding to these differentiation states. We used ligation-mediated amplification and a fluorescent, bead-based detection system to quantify simultaneously 55 transcripts representing naive and memory-phenotype signatures in purified populations of human T cells. The use of a multi-gene panel allowed better resolution than any constituent single gene. The method was precise, correlated well with Affymetrix microarray data, and could be easily scaled up for high-throughput.
Conclusion
This method provides a generic solution for high-throughput differentiation screens in primary human T cells where no single-gene or functional assay is available. This screening platform will allow the identification of small molecules, genes or soluble factors that direct memory differentiation in naive human lymphocytes.
doi:10.1186/1471-2172-9-44
PMCID: PMC2529265  PMID: 18673556
19.  Signature-Based Small Molecule Screening Identifies Cytosine Arabinoside as an EWS/FLI Modulator in Ewing Sarcoma 
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(4):e122.
Background
The presence of tumor-specific mutations in the cancer genome represents a potential opportunity for pharmacologic intervention to therapeutic benefit. Unfortunately, many classes of oncoproteins (e.g., transcription factors) are not amenable to conventional small-molecule screening. Despite the identification of tumor-specific somatic mutations, most cancer therapy still utilizes nonspecific, cytotoxic drugs. One illustrative example is the treatment of Ewing sarcoma. Although the EWS/FLI oncoprotein, present in the vast majority of Ewing tumors, was characterized over ten years ago, it has never been exploited as a target of therapy. Previously, this target has been intractable to modulation with traditional small-molecule library screening approaches. Here we describe a gene expression–based approach to identify compounds that induce a signature of EWS/FLI attenuation. We hypothesize that screening small-molecule libraries highly enriched for FDA-approved drugs will provide a more rapid path to clinical application.
Methods and Findings
A gene expression signature for the EWS/FLI off state was determined with microarray expression profiling of Ewing sarcoma cell lines with EWS/FLI-directed RNA interference. A small-molecule library enriched for FDA-approved drugs was screened with a high-throughput, ligation-mediated amplification assay with a fluorescent, bead-based detection. Screening identified cytosine arabinoside (ARA-C) as a modulator of EWS/FLI. ARA-C reduced EWS/FLI protein abundance and accordingly diminished cell viability and transformation and abrogated tumor growth in a xenograft model. Given the poor outcomes of many patients with Ewing sarcoma and the well-established ARA-C safety profile, clinical trials testing ARA-C are warranted.
Conclusions
We demonstrate that a gene expression–based approach to small-molecule library screening can identify, for rapid clinical testing, candidate drugs that modulate previously intractable targets. Furthermore, this is a generic approach that can, in principle, be applied to the identification of modulators of any tumor-associated oncoprotein in the rare pediatric malignancies, but also in the more common adult cancers.
Todd Golub and colleagues show that a gene expression-based screen of small-molecule libraries can identify candidate drugs that modulate cancer-associated oncoproteins.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Cancer occurs when cells accumulate genetic changes (mutations) that allow them to divide uncontrollably and to travel throughout the body (metastasize). Chemotherapy, a mainstay of cancer treatments, works by killing rapidly dividing cells. Because some normal tissues also contain dividing cells and are therefore sensitive to chemotherapy drugs, it is hard to treat cancer without causing serious side effects. In recent years, however, researchers have identified some of the mutations that drive the growth of cancer cells. This raises the possibility of designing drugs that kill only cancer cells by specifically targeting “oncoproteins” (the abnormal proteins generated by mutations that transform normal cells into cancer cells). Some “targeted” drugs have already reached the clinic, but unfortunately medicinal chemists do not know how to inhibit the function of many classes of oncoproteins with the small organic molecules that make the best medicines. One oncoprotein in this category is EWS/FLI. This contains part of a protein called EWS fused to part of a transcription factor (a protein that controls cell behavior by telling the cell which proteins to make) called FLI. About 80% of patients with Ewing sarcoma (the second commonest childhood cancer of bone and soft tissue) have the mutation responsible for EWS/FLI expression. Localized Ewing sarcoma can be treated with nontargeted chemotherapy (often in combination with surgery and radiotherapy), but treatment for recurrent or metastatic disease remains very poor.
Why Was This Study Done?
Researchers have known for years that EWS/FLI expression drives the development of Ewing sarcoma by activating the expression of target genes needed for tumor formation. However, EWS/FLI has never been exploited as a target for therapy of this cancer—mainly because traditional approaches used to screen libraries of small molecules do not identify compounds that modulate the activity of transcription factors. In this study, the researchers have used a new gene expression–based, high-throughput screening (GE-HTS) approach to identify compounds that modulate the activity of EWS/FLI.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used a molecular biology technique called microarray expression profiling to define a 14-gene expression signature that differentiates between Ewing sarcoma cells in which the EWS/FLI fusion protein is active and those in which it is inactive. They then used this signature to screen a library of about 1,000 chemicals (many already approved for other clinical uses) in a “ligation-mediated amplification assay.” For this, the researchers grew Ewing sarcoma cells with the test chemicals, extracted RNA from the cells, and generated a DNA copy of the RNA. They then added two short pieces of DNA (probes) specific for each signature gene to the samples. In samples that expressed a given signature gene, both probes bound and were then ligated (joined together) and amplified. Because one of each probe pair also contained a unique “capture sequence,” the signature genes expressed in each sample were finally identified by adding colored fluorescent beads, each linked to DNA complementary to a different capture sequence. The most active modulator of EWS/FLI activity identified by this GE-HTS approach was cytosine arabinoside (ARA-C). At levels achievable in people, this compound reduced the abundance of EWS/FLI protein in and the viability and cancer-like behavior of Ewing sarcoma cells growing in test tubes. ARA-C treatment also slowed the growth of Ewing sarcoma cells transplanted into mice.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings identify ARA-C, which is already used to treat children with some forms of leukemia, as a potent modulator of EWS/FLI activity. More laboratory experiments are needed to discover how ARA-C changes the behavior of Ewing sarcoma cells. Nevertheless, given the poor outcomes currently seen in many patients with Ewing sarcoma and the historical reluctance to test new drugs in children, these findings strongly support the initiation of clinical trials of ARA-C in children with Ewing sarcoma. These results also show that the GE-HTS approach is a powerful way to identify candidate drugs able to modulate the activity of some of the oncoproteins (including transcription factors and other previously intractable targets) that drive cancer development.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040122.
Cancerquest from Emory University, provides information on cancer biology (also includes information in Spanish, Chinese and Russian)
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has pages on Ewing sarcoma
Information for patients and health professionals on Ewing sarcoma is available from the US National Cancer Institute
Cancerbackup offers information for patients and their parents on Ewing sarcoma
Wikipedia has pages on DNA microarrays and expression profiling (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040122
PMCID: PMC1851624  PMID: 17425403
20.  A method for high-throughput gene expression signature analysis 
Genome Biology  2006;7(7):R61.
A new method for cost-effective high-throughput gene expression signature analysis is described.
Genome-wide transcriptional profiling has shown that different biologic states (for instance, disease and response to pharmacologic manipulation) can be recognized by the expression pattern of relatively small numbers of genes. However, the lack of a practical and cost-effective technology for detection of these gene expression 'signatures' in large numbers of samples has severely limited their exploitation in important medical and pharmaceutical discovery applications. Here, we describe a solution based on the combination of ligation-mediated amplification with an optically addressed microsphere and flow cytometric detection system.
doi:10.1186/gb-2006-7-7-r61
PMCID: PMC1779561  PMID: 16859521

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