Starvation and Pseudo-starvation in cancer metastasis

Project Overview

A proportion of Brn-2 localises to the cytoskeleton at the leading edge of an invading melanoma ...

Cancer cells proliferate in response to deregulated signal transduction pathways that provide an impetus for cell division, but which must also maintain a balance between nutrient supply and demand. Recent advances have identified crucial adaptive responses in cancer cells that facilitate cell survival when faced with stresses, including nutrient limitation and inflammation, commonly found within the intra-tumour microenvironment. By targeting the adaptive response to stress, cancer cells will be sensitised to cell death irrespective of the driver mutations that trigger deregulated proliferation. The aim of this project is to develop novel therapeutic strategies directed towards disrupting the adaptive response to stresses found within tumours. 

The project will use a wide variety of cutting edge technologies including real-time imaging, characterisation of hits from drug screens, Mass Spec, genome-wide ChIP-seq and single cell RNA-seq, as well as standard biochemistry and molecular biology.

Training Opportunities

Training opportunities: In addition to standard biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, training will be given in state-of the art real-time imaging using fluorescent reporters, single cell sequencing,  Mass Spec and high-content imaging-based drug screens.


Cancer Biology and Physiology, Cellular & Molecular Biology


Project reference number: 437

Funding and admissions information


Name Department Institution Country Email
Colin Goding Oxford Ludwig Institute Oxford University, Old Road Campus Research Building GBR
Skirmantas Kriaucionis Oxford Ludwig Institute Oxford University, Old Road Campus Research Building GBR

García-Jiménez C, Goding CR. 2019. Starvation and Pseudo-Starvation as Drivers of Cancer Metastasis through Translation Reprogramming. Cell Metab., 29 (2), pp. 254-267. Read abstract | Read more

Considerable progress has been made in identifying microenvironmental signals that effect the reversible phenotypic transitions underpinning the early steps in the metastatic cascade. However, although the general principles underlying metastatic dissemination have been broadly outlined, a common theme that unifies many of the triggers of invasive behavior in tumors has yet to emerge. Here we discuss how many diverse signals that induce invasion converge on the reprogramming of protein translation via phosphorylation of eIF2α, a hallmark of the starvation response. These include starvation as a consequence of nutrient or oxygen limitation, or pseudo-starvation imposed by cell-extrinsic microenvironmental signals or by cell-intrinsic events, including oncogene activation. Since in response to resource limitation single-cell organisms undergo phenotypic transitions remarkably similar to those observed within tumors, we propose that a starvation/pseudo-starvation model to explain cancer progression provides an integrated and evolutionarily conserved conceptual framework to understand the progression of this complex disease. Hide abstract

Herbert K, Binet R, Lambert JP, Louphrasitthiphol P, Kalkavan H, Sesma-Sanz L, Robles-Espinoza CD, Sarkar S, Suer E, Andrews S, Chauhan J, Roberts ND, Middleton MR, Gingras AC, Masson JY, Larue L, Falletta P, Goding CR. 2019. BRN2 suppresses apoptosis, reprograms DNA damage repair, and is associated with a high somatic mutation burden in melanoma. Genes Dev., 33 (5-6), pp. 310-332. Read abstract | Read more

Whether cell types exposed to a high level of environmental insults possess cell type-specific prosurvival mechanisms or enhanced DNA damage repair capacity is not well understood. BRN2 is a tissue-restricted POU domain transcription factor implicated in neural development and several cancers. In melanoma, BRN2 plays a key role in promoting invasion and regulating proliferation. Here we found, surprisingly, that rather than interacting with transcription cofactors, BRN2 is instead associated with DNA damage response proteins and directly binds PARP1 and Ku70/Ku80. Rapid PARP1-dependent BRN2 association with sites of DNA damage facilitates recruitment of Ku80 and reprograms DNA damage repair by promoting Ku-dependent nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) at the expense of homologous recombination. BRN2 also suppresses an apoptosis-associated gene expression program to protect against UVB-, chemotherapy- and vemurafenib-induced apoptosis. Remarkably, BRN2 expression also correlates with a high single-nucleotide variation prevalence in human melanomas. By promoting error-prone DNA damage repair via NHEJ and suppressing apoptosis of damaged cells, our results suggest that BRN2 contributes to the generation of melanomas with a high mutation burden. Our findings highlight a novel role for a key transcription factor in reprogramming DNA damage repair and suggest that BRN2 may impact the response to DNA-damaging agents in BRN2-expressing cancers. Hide abstract

Li L, Friedrichsen HJ, Andrews S, Picaud S, Volpon L, Ngeow K, Berridge G, Fischer R, Borden KLB, Filippakopoulos P, Goding CR. 2018. A TFEB nuclear export signal integrates amino acid supply and glucose availability. Nat Commun, 9 (1), pp. 2685. Read abstract | Read more

How cells coordinate the response to fluctuating carbon and nitrogen availability required to maintain effective homeostasis is a key issue. Amino acid limitation that inactivates mTORC1 promotes de-phosphorylation and nuclear translocation of Transcription Factor EB (TFEB), a key transcriptional regulator of lysosome biogenesis and autophagy that is deregulated in cancer and neurodegeneration. Beyond its cytoplasmic sequestration, how TFEB phosphorylation regulates its nuclear-cytoplasmic shuttling, and whether TFEB can coordinate amino acid supply with glucose availability is poorly understood. Here we show that TFEB phosphorylation on S142 primes for GSK3β phosphorylation on S138, and that phosphorylation of both sites but not either alone activates a previously unrecognized nuclear export signal (NES). Importantly, GSK3β is inactivated by AKT in response to mTORC2 signaling triggered by glucose limitation. Remarkably therefore, the TFEB NES integrates carbon (glucose) and nitrogen (amino acid) availability by controlling TFEB flux through a nuclear import-export cycle. Hide abstract

Falletta P, Sanchez-Del-Campo L, Chauhan J, Effern M, Kenyon A, Kershaw CJ, Siddaway R, Lisle R, Freter R, Daniels MJ, Lu X, Tüting T, Middleton M, Buffa FM, Willis AE, Pavitt G, Ronai ZA, Sauka-Spengler T, Hölzel M, Goding CR. 2017. Translation reprogramming is an evolutionarily conserved driver of phenotypic plasticity and therapeutic resistance in melanoma. Genes Dev., 31 (1), pp. 18-33. Read abstract | Read more

The intratumor microenvironment generates phenotypically distinct but interconvertible malignant cell subpopulations that fuel metastatic spread and therapeutic resistance. Whether different microenvironmental cues impose invasive or therapy-resistant phenotypes via a common mechanism is unknown. In melanoma, low expression of the lineage survival oncogene microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF) correlates with invasion, senescence, and drug resistance. However, how MITF is suppressed in vivo and how MITF-low cells in tumors escape senescence are poorly understood. Here we show that microenvironmental cues, including inflammation-mediated resistance to adoptive T-cell immunotherapy, transcriptionally repress MITF via ATF4 in response to inhibition of translation initiation factor eIF2B. ATF4, a key transcription mediator of the integrated stress response, also activates AXL and suppresses senescence to impose the MITF-low/AXL-high drug-resistant phenotype observed in human tumors. However, unexpectedly, without translation reprogramming an ATF4-high/MITF-low state is insufficient to drive invasion. Importantly, translation reprogramming dramatically enhances tumorigenesis and is linked to a previously unexplained gene expression program associated with anti-PD-1 immunotherapy resistance. Since we show that inhibition of eIF2B also drives neural crest migration and yeast invasiveness, our results suggest that translation reprogramming, an evolutionarily conserved starvation response, has been hijacked by microenvironmental stress signals in melanoma to drive phenotypic plasticity and invasion and determine therapeutic outcome. Hide abstract

Sáez-Ayala M, Montenegro MF, Sánchez-Del-Campo L, Fernández-Pérez MP, Chazarra S, Freter R, Middleton M, Piñero-Madrona A, Cabezas-Herrera J, Goding CR, Rodríguez-López JN. 2013. Directed phenotype switching as an effective antimelanoma strategy. Cancer Cell, 24 (1), pp. 105-19. Read abstract | Read more

Therapeutic resistance in melanoma and other cancers arises via irreversible genetic, and dynamic phenotypic, heterogeneity. Here, we use directed phenotype switching in melanoma to sensitize melanoma cells to lineage-specific therapy. We show that methotrexate (MTX) induces microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF) expression to inhibit invasiveness and promote differentiation-associated expression of the melanocyte-specific Tyrosinase gene. Consequently, MTX sensitizes melanomas to a tyrosinase-processed antifolate prodrug 3-O-(3,4,5-trimethoxybenzoyl)-(-)-epicatechin (TMECG), that inhibits the essential enzyme DHFR with high affinity. The combination of MTX and TMECG leads to depletion of thymidine pools, double-strand DNA breaks, and highly efficient E2F1-mediated apoptosis in culture and in vivo. Importantly, this drug combination delivers an effective and tissue-restricted antimelanoma therapy in vitro and in vivo irrespective of BRAF, MEK, or p53 status. Hide abstract

Carreira S, Goodall J, Denat L, Rodriguez M, Nuciforo P, Hoek KS, Testori A, Larue L, Goding CR. 2006. Mitf regulation of Dia1 controls melanoma proliferation and invasiveness. Genes Dev., 20 (24), pp. 3426-39. Read abstract | Read more

It is widely held that cells with metastatic properties such as invasiveness and expression of matrix metalloproteinases arise through the stepwise accumulation of genetic lesions arising from genetic instability and "clonal evolution." By contrast, we show here that in melanomas invasiveness can be regulated epigenetically by the microphthalmia-associated transcription factor, Mitf, via regulation of the DIAPH1 gene encoding the diaphanous-related formin Dia1 that promotes actin polymerization and coordinates the actin cytoskeleton and microtubule networks at the cell periphery. Low Mitf levels lead to down-regulation of Dia1, reorganization of the actin cytoskeleton, and increased ROCK-dependent invasiveness, whereas increased Mitf expression leads to decreased invasiveness. Significantly the regulation of Dia1 by Mitf also controls p27(Kip1)-degradation such that reduced Mitf levels lead to a p27(Kip1)-dependent G1 arrest. Thus Mitf, via regulation of Dia1, can both inhibit invasiveness and promote proliferation. The results imply variations in the repertoire of environmental cues that determine Mitf activity will dictate the differentiation, proliferative, and invasive/migratory potential of melanoma cells through a dynamic epigenetic mechanism. Hide abstract

Carreira S, Goodall J, Aksan I, La Rocca SA, Galibert MD, Denat L, Larue L, Goding CR. 2005. Mitf cooperates with Rb1 and activates p21Cip1 expression to regulate cell cycle progression. Nature, 433 (7027), pp. 764-9. Read abstract | Read more

The controls that enable melanoblasts and melanoma cells to proliferate are likely to be related, but so far no key regulator of cell cycle progression specific to the melanocyte lineage has been identified. The microphthalmia-associated transcription factor Mitf has a crucial but poorly defined role in melanoblast and melanocyte survival and in differentiation. Here we show that Mitf can act as a novel anti-proliferative transcription factor able to induce a G1 cell-cycle arrest that is dependent on Mitf-mediated activation of the p21(Cip1) (CDKN1A) cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor gene. Moreover, cooperation between Mitf and the retinoblastoma protein Rb1 potentiates the ability of Mitf to activate transcription. The results indicate that Mitf-mediated activation of p21Cip1 expression and consequent hypophosphorylation of Rb1 will contribute to cell cycle exit and activation of the differentiation programme. The mutation of genes associated with melanoma, such as INK4a or BRAF that would affect either Mitf cooperation with Rb1 or Mitf stability respectively, would impair Mitf-mediated cell cycle control. Hide abstract