We recently developed a novel method to control the production of the transcription factor Brachyury/T in cells by using a lentivirus that produces an shRNA directed against Brachyury and, when introduced into cells (or animals), causes the loss of Brachyury/T. This novel tool will enable us to alter Brachyury function during mouse development to understand how it regulates cell fate and behavior, and then to determine whether its function is necessary for notochord cell survival. It has been hypothesized that Brachyury plays a central role in the formation of cancers that arise from notochord (chordomas), and this tool may also provide the impetus for devising new therapies for these very difficult to treat cancers. We have introduced this shRNA construct into transgenic mice and employed Cre-lox technology to selectively activate its expression in different embryonic tissues at specific times. We have shown that early activation of this knock-down construct in mouse embryos that are heterozygous for the Brachyury null mutation (T+/-) reproduces the null embryonic lethal phenotype with loss of the body axis caudal to the forelimb level. Now that we have shown that Brachyury can be effectively removed from cells and animals using this approach, we are using it to study the normal function of Brachyury in regulating growth and cell fate during notochord formation, in comparison to its role in primitive streak. The activation of Brachyury expression has been proposed to be essential for the genesis of chordomas, cancers that arise in notochord remnants. The gene knock-down tools we have developed to study Brachyury function have allowed us to test this hypothesis and unravel the possible mechanisms by which this gene may promote tumor formation, and may also give new insights on developing potential therapeutic interventions for chordoma. Surprisingly, our results indicate that Brachyury function is essential for maintaining notochord cell fate, but dispensible for the survival and proliferation of notochord progenitors. We are also developing a genetic mouse model for chordoma based on activated canonical Wnt pathway in conjunction with p53 tumor suppressor inactivation in the notochord lineage. Such a genetic model will allow us to introduce and evaluate the effects of mutant alleles for tuberous sclerosis complex genes (TSC1,2) which are know to predispose to chordoma in humans, but not in mice, suggesting other factors are also necessary in the pathogenesis of TSC-related chordoma. We also plan to use the shRNA transgene approach to knock-down brachyury expression in this mouse chordoma model, to assess the potential of brachyury inactivation as an approach in treating this tumor.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Investigator-Initiated Intramural Research Projects (ZIA)
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Zhu, Jianjian; Kwan, Kin Ming; Mackem, Susan (2016) Putative oncogene Brachyury (T) is essential to specify cell fate but dispensable for notochord progenitor proliferation and EMT. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:3820-5