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Cancer Res. 2004 Oct 15;64(20):7336-45.

Green fluorescent protein tagging of extracellular signal-regulated kinase and p38 pathways reveals novel dynamics of pathway activation during primary and metastatic growth.

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Department of Biomedical Sciences, School of Public Health and Center for Excellence in Cancer Genomics, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, New York, USA.


We describe a novel approach that allows detection of primary and metastatic cells in vivo in which either the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) or the p38 pathway is activated. Our recent findings showed that ERK and p38 kinases regulate, respectively, programs dictating cell proliferation (high ERK-to-p38 ratio) or growth arrest and dormancy (low ERK-to-p38 ratio) in vivo. Thus, we were able to use green fluorescent protein (GFP) to reflect ERK and p38 activities and, consequently, the proliferative state of cancer cells. This was accomplished by transfecting tumorigenic T-HEp3 and HT1080 cells, and dormant D-HEp3 cells, with plasmids coding for Elk-GAL4 or CHOP-GAL4 fusion proteins that, when phosphorylated by either ERK or p38, respectively, transactivated a GFP-reporter gene. The fate of these cells was examined in culture, in primary sites, and in spontaneous metastasis in chick embryos and nude mice. In culture GFP level was directly proportional to the previously established levels of ERK or p38 activation. In contrast, during the first 24 hours of in vivo inoculation, both the tumorigenic and the dormant cells strongly activated the p38 pathway. However, in the tumorigenic cells, p38 activity was rapidly silenced, correcting the ERK/p38 imbalance and contributing to high ERK activity throughout the entire period of tumor growth. In contrast, in the small nodules formed by dormant cells, the level of ERK activity was dramatically reduced, whereas p38 activity remained high. Strong activation of ERK was evident in metastatic sites, whereas p38 activation was silenced in this anatomic location as well. These results show that it is possible to directly measure cancer cell response to microenvironment with this reporter system and that only proliferation-competent cells have the ability to rapidly adapt ERK and p38 signaling for proliferative success. This approach allows isolation and further characterization of metastatic cells with specific signaling signatures indicative of their phenotypes.

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