The predisposition of type 1 and 2 neurofibromatosis (NF1 and NF2, respectively) patients to both benign and malignant nerve sheath, myeloid cell and other cancers represents for these diseases the principal cause of morbidity and mortality. The effective treatment of these tumors represents a major unmet medical need. NF1 and NF2 are genetic loss of function diseases in which the cognate genes, NF1 and NF2 are subject to a broad suite of inactivating mutations or truncations. Given this genetic heterogeneity, coupled with the loss of function phenotype, targeting or exploiting neurofibromin (the product of NF1) or merlin (the product of NF2) as a therapeutic approach is impractical. By contrast, neurofibromin is a Ras inactivator, and ongoing work indicates that blunting Ras signaling could be beneficial to the treatment of NF1 tumors insofar as inhibition of Ras itself, or inhibition of Ras effectors such as the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) group of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) can significantly blunt NF1 cell proliferation. In a somewhat similar vein, merlin, by an unknown mechanism, suppresses signaling by the Jun-N-terminal kinase (JNK), and possibly the ERK MAPKs. However, the biological consequences of merlin-mediated inhibition of JNK is unclear; and overall, our knowledge of MAPK pathway regulation and function in NF1 and NF2 tumor cell biology is incomplete. Clearly, further studies are needed to identify suitable targets for new treatment approaches. Our preliminary work identifies the Ser/Thr kinase mixed lineage kinase-3 (MLK3) as a required component for the proliferation of malignant schwannoma cell lines from NF1 and NF2 patients, and for murine NF2-/- cells. We find that MLK3 is also required for mitogen activation of NF1/2 cell MAPKs. Surprisingly, MLK3, by an as yet unknown, indirect mechanism, recruits B-Raf to activate ERK. This project will explore the biochemical function(s) that MLK3 performs in mitogen-treated NF tumor cells and the molecular basis by which merlin and neurofibromin regulate MLK.3. Accordingly, in Aim 1 we will use biochemical, pharmacologic, RNAi, morpholino antisense RNA and inducible cell lines to explore (i) if NF2 cell proliferation is ERK and/or JNK-dependent, (ii) if induction of merlin or the NF1 GTPase activating protein-related domain (GRD) inhibits MLK3 and its effectors and if this inhibition is lost in NF2 or NF1 mutants associated with disease, and (iii) how MLK3 regulates ERK-specific MAP3Ks of the Raf family.
In Aim 2, we will use RNAi, morpholino antisense RNA and inducible cell lines to assess the degree to which ablation or induction of NF1 or NF2 affects the activity of endogenous MLK3, its effectors and downstream functions. Finally, we find that endogenous and recombinant merlin and MLK3 associate in vivo in a mitogen-reversible manner. Merlin is a negative regulator of JNK activity, and possesses a proline-rich segment which could bind to the SH3 domain of MLK3. Alternatively, merlin could repress the recruitment of MLK3 by Rho family GTPases.
In Aim 3, we will use biochemical and molecular biological methods to explore these possibilities. ? ? ? ?
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