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Cancer Res. 2011 Nov 1;71(21):6836-47. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-11-0846. Epub 2011 Sep 2.

A NOTCH3-mediated squamous cell differentiation program limits expansion of EMT-competent cells that express the ZEB transcription factors.

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  • 1Gastroenterology Division, Department of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.


Zinc finger E-box-binding (ZEB) proteins ZEB1 and ZEB2 are transcription factors essential in TGF-β-mediated senescence, epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and cancer stem cell functions. ZEBs are negatively regulated by members of the miR-200 microRNA family, but precisely how tumor cells expressing ZEBs emerge during invasive growth remains unknown. Here, we report that NOTCH3-mediated signaling prevents expansion of a unique subset of ZEB-expressing cells. ZEB expression was associated with the lack of cellular capability of undergoing NOTCH3-mediated squamous differentiation in human esophageal cells. Genetic inhibition of the Notch-mediated transcriptional activity by dominant-negative Mastermind-like 1 (DNMAML1) prevented squamous differentiation and induction of Notch target genes including NOTCH3. Moreover, DNMAML1-enriched EMT-competent cells exhibited robust upregulation of ZEBs, downregulation of the miR-200 family, and enhanced anchorage-independent growth and tumor formation in nude mice. RNA interference experiments suggested the involvement of ZEBs in anchorage-independent colony formation, invasion, and TGF-β-mediated EMT. Invasive growth and impaired squamous differentiation were recapitulated upon Notch inhibition by DNMAML1 in organotypic three-dimensional culture, a form of human tissue engineering. Together, our findings indicate that NOTCH3 is a key factor limiting the expansion of ZEB-expressing cells, providing novel mechanistic insights into the role of Notch signaling in the cell fate regulation and disease progression of esophageal squamous cancers.

©2011 AACR.

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