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Exploring therapeutic vulnerabilities in tumours with GLI1 oncogene activation

Mangei, Jasmin Elena

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Abstract

Deregulation of oncogene expression is one of the main drivers in tumorigenesis. Genetic alterations, such as gene amplification and structural variation, or epigenetic mechanisms based on the chemical modification of DNA or histones, facilitate the activation of proto-oncogenes that convey growth and survival advantages to the cells. Previously, our group identified focal amplification of the chromosome arm 12q in 14 of 60 glioblastoma patients (23.3 %) of which 4 patients harboured fusion genes with the oncogene GLI Family Zinc Finger 1 (GLI1). In this study, I investigated the frequency and structure of GLI1 fusion genes, mechanisms of GLI1 transcriptional activation, GLI1-dependent tumour cell phenotype, and the potential value of GLI1 as a therapeutic target in precision-oncology in glioblastoma and liposarcoma. Initially, I identified GLI1 fusion genes linked with focal amplification on chromosome arm 12q in three independent glioblastoma cohorts (HIPO016, HIPO043, and TCGA-GB). GLI1 fusion genes were associated with high expression of GLI1 and its target genes, such as HHIP, PTCH1, and FOXS1. The boundary of the 12q amplification region often coincided with the GLI1 locus, presumably causing the breakage within the gene and the formation of fusion transcripts. The analysis of sarcoma tumours of the NCT MASTER study revealed high GLI1 expression in subtypes of osteosarcoma and soft tissue sarcoma. In addition, GLI1 fusion genes were found in liposarcoma and leiomyosarcoma. Furthermore, the disruption of a CTCF binding site upstream of the GLI1 locus upregulated the RNA expression of GLI1 and its target genes and increased cell proliferation. These data suggest that fusion-related genetic and epigenetic mechanisms regulate GLI1 expression. To explore its oncogenic function, I conducted phenotypic assays with and without GLI1 suppression and observed a reduction in tumour cell proliferation, anchorage-independent growth and increased apoptosis upon shRNA depletion or inhibition with the GLI1 inhibitor GlaB. The downregulation of several DNA repair pathways upon GLI1 depletion suggested that patients with aberrant GLI1 expression might benefit from combined GLI1 and DNA repair inhibitor therapy. To address this question, I performed a pre-clinical drug combination screen of GLI1 and DNA repair/cell cycle checkpoint inhibitors in glioblastoma and liposarcoma cell lines. In the primary screen, I tested inhibitors individually to identify effective and selective drugs of which the most promising candidates were tested in combination in the subsequent secondary screen. Both glioblastoma and liposarcoma showed high sensitivities to the SHH inhibitor JK184 and the GLI1 inhibitor GlaB. Synergistic effects were observed when GLI1 inhibitors were combined with inhibitors of the ATR/CHK1 axis, i.e., the CHK1 inhibitor LY2606368 or the ATR inhibitor Berzosertib. The independent validation of the screening results in cellular assays showed an increased effect of the combination treatment compared to the single agents on short- and long-term tumour cell proliferation. I furthermore confirmed the reduction in tumour growth upon treatment with GlaB and LY2606368 in a glioblastoma cerebral organoid model. In conclusion, these data suggest that concurrent targeting of the SHH/GLI1 and ATR/CHK1 axes provides a possible precision-therapy approach for tumours with high GLI1 expression.

Document type: Dissertation
Supervisor: Rippe, Prof. Dr. Karsten
Place of Publication: Heidelberg
Date of thesis defense: 20 December 2021
Date Deposited: 15 Mar 2022 07:40
Date: 2023
Faculties / Institutes: The Faculty of Bio Sciences > Dean's Office of the Faculty of Bio Sciences
DDC-classification: 500 Natural sciences and mathematics
570 Life sciences
Controlled Keywords: Molecular Genetics
Uncontrolled Keywords: Oncogene activation, GLI1, glioblastoma, sarcoma
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