Science & Technology/Contributor to Aggressive Cancers Identified by Pitt Medical Researchers

Issue Date: 
July 9, 2007


Mutations in cell-adhesion molecule allow tumor cells to grow more rapidly, spread beyond original site

Mutations in the cell adhesion molecule known as integrin alpha 7 (integrin α7) lead to unchecked tumor cell proliferation and a significantly higher incidence in cancer spread, or metastasis, in several cancer cell lines, Pitt School of Medicine researchers found in a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute on June 6.

These findings suggest that integrin α7 represents an important new target for cancer therapy and prevention.

Integrin α7 belongs to a major class of cell membrane proteins that play a role in the attachment of a cell to the extracellular matrix (ECM), which is the material that holds cells within a particular type of tissue together. Integrins also help cells attach to one another and are involved in transmitting chemical signals between cells and the ECM.

Pitt researchers led by Jianhua Luo, a professor in the medical school’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Pathology, examined whether this gene is mutated in specimens of various human cancers as well as whether the level of integrin α7 expression is associated with clinical relapse of human cancers. They also investigated whether integrin α7 has tumor suppressor activity.

To determine whether mutations in integrin α7 contribute to cancer, Luo and his collaborators sequenced the integrin α7 genes from 66 human cancer specimens and cell lines representing a number of different kinds of cancer, including cancer of the prostate, liver, brain (glioblastoma), and muscle (leiomyosarcoma).

They found mutations in the integrin α7 gene, particularly those that resulted in an abnormally shortened protein product, or truncation, in 16 of 28 prostate cancers. They also found truncation-inducing mutations in five of 24 liver cancer samples, five of six glioblastomas, and one of four leiomyosarcomas.

Integrin α7 mutations also were associated with a significant increase in the recurrence of cancer among patients. Nine of 13 prostate cancer patients with integrin α7 mutations experienced a recurrence of their cancer after radical prostatectomy versus only one of eight prostate cancer patients without such mutations. There were five recurrences among eight hepatocellular carcinoma patients with integrin α7 mutations versus only one recurrence of cancer among 16 patients without such mutations.

To examine the effect of alterations in the level of integrin α7 on tumor formation, the researchers assessed the ability of cancer cells to form colonies in a standard growth medium after increasing or decreasing the level of normal integrin α7 in the cell lines. In this experiment, control cancer cells formed large colonies with up to 100 cells each. Cancer cells with normal levels of integrin α7 expression formed fewer and smaller colonies. When investigators decreased the level of integrin α7 in two cancer cells lines using siRNAs, or silencing RNAs, both cell lines formed more colonies and grew better than corresponding control cell lines.

“When we increased levels of normal integrin α7 in cancer cells, they grew at a much slower rate,” Luo said. “This suggests that this protein is a fairly potent tumor suppressor.”

Luo and his colleagues then investigated the role of integrin α7 in metastasis by examining the relationship between the level of integrin α7 expression and cell migration by increasing the expression of normal integrin α7 in three cell lines. The migration rate was significantly reduced in all of the cells compared to those in which the expression of integrin α7 remained deficient, suggesting that the level of normal integrin α7 expression is inversely associated with tumor cell migration.

Finally, to investigate whether normal integrin α7 possesses tumor-suppressor activity, the researchers implanted human cancer cells into immune deficient mice. Some mice received tumor cells in which levels of integrin α7 were increased, while others received tumor cells in which the levels of normal integrin α7 were decreased. Six weeks after mice were implanted with cancer cells in which levels of normal integrin α7 were deficient, they had tumors with an average volume about four times as large as mice with implanted cancer cells in which normal integrin α7 levels were increased.

Similarly, the researchers found no visible metastasis in mice with tumors in which levels of normal integrin α7 had been increased. On the other hand, they did find evidence of metastasis in three of 12 mice with one type of tumor deficient in normal integrin α7 and in four of the 12 mice with another type of tumor deficient in normal integrin α7. Furthermore, the six-week survival of mice bearing tumors with increased levels of normal integrin α7 was higher than that of mice bearing tumors in which normal integrin α7 had not been experimentally increased. Thus, increasing the level of normal integrin α7 in tumors was associated with decreased tumor growth and metastasis in this animal model.

According to Luo and his fellow researchers, these findings suggest that not only is integrin α7 an important tumor suppressor, but it is potentially a critical new target for cancer treatment.

“Our study shows rather definitively that when we experimentally decreased the level of integrin α7 protein or the protein was naturally mutated in cells, those cells lost their inhibitory signals for both cell migration and proliferation,” Luo explained. “This suggests that the loss of integrin α7 activity may lead to unchecked tumor cell proliferation and a significantly increased risk of tumor metastasis. More importantly, it suggests that if we can somehow restore normal integrin α7 levels in tumor cells in vivo, we may be able to reduce the risk of them spreading to other sites, which would be a significant achievement in cancer therapy.”

This research was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute, the Pitt Department of Urology’s development fund, and the John Rangos Foundation for Enhancement of Research in Pathology.