Differentiation therapy and the mechanisms that terminate cancer cell proliferation without harming normal cells

Francis O. Enane, Yogen Saunthararajah, Murray Korc

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

10 Scopus citations


Chemotherapeutic drugs have a common intent to activate apoptosis in tumor cells. However, master regulators of apoptosis (e.g., p53, p16/CDKN2A) are frequently genetically inactivated in cancers, resulting in multidrug resistance. An alternative, p53-independent method for terminating malignant proliferation is to engage terminal-differentiation. Normally, the exponential proliferation of lineage-committed progenitors, coordinated by the master transcription factor (TF) MYC, is self-limited by forward-differentiation to terminal lineage-fates. In cancers, however, this exponential proliferation is disengaged from terminal-differentiation. The mechanisms underlying this decoupling are mostly unknown. We performed a systematic review of published literature (January 2007–June 2018) to identify gene pathways linked to differentiation-failure in three treatment-recalcitrant cancers: hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), ovarian cancer (OVC), and pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). We analyzed key gene alterations in various apoptosis, proliferation and differentiation pathways to determine whether it is possible to predict treatment outcomes and suggest novel therapies. Poorly differentiated tumors were linked to poorer survival across histologies. Our analyses suggested loss-of-function events to master TF drivers of lineage-fates and their cofactors as being linked to differentiation-failure: genomic data in TCGA and ICGC databases demonstrated frequent haploinsufficiency of lineage master TFs (e.g., GATA4/6) in poorly differentiated tumors; the coactivators that these TFs use to activate genes (e.g. ARID1A, PBRM1) were also frequently inactivated by genetic mutation and/or deletion. By contrast, corepressor components (e.g., DNMT1, EED, UHRF1, and BAZ1A/B), that oppose coactivators to repress or turn off genes, were frequently amplified instead, and the level of amplification was highest in poorly differentiated lesions. This selection by neoplastic evolution towards unbalanced activity of transcriptional corepressors suggests these enzymes as candidate targets for inhibition aiming to re-engage forward-differentiation. This notion is supported by both pre-clinical and clinical trial literature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number912
JournalCell Death and Disease
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cell Biology
  • Cancer Research

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