Research ArticleCancer

Targeted Disruption of the BCL9/β-Catenin Complex Inhibits Oncogenic Wnt Signaling

Science Translational Medicine  22 Aug 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 148, pp. 148ra117
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003808

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Stapling Down Oncogenic Wnt Signaling

The Wnt signaling pathway plays ancient and essential roles—it’s required for embryonic development in all animals and for key functions in adult tissues. Dysregulation of the pathway, however, underlies multiple human cancers. The development of Wnt pathway inhibitors has received considerable attention, but to be useful, such inhibitors must not disrupt vital pathway functions. To address this issue, Takada and colleagues now target an interaction between two Wnt pathway proteins, one of which (BCL9) is highly expressed in tumors but not in the cells of tumor origin.

Wnt signaling ultimately increases nuclear levels of the transcriptional activator β-catenin, which promotes the expression of genes involved in cell survival and division. Certain coactivators, including BCL9, can form a complex with β-catenin and increase such gene expression. Takada et al. aimed to disrupt the BCL9–β-catenin interaction with a structured peptide mimicking the BCL9 binding interface. BCL9 binds to a site on β-catenin that differs from those of other binding partners; contact occurs via an α-helical domain of BCL9. The authors stabilized peptides representing that domain by using hydrocarbon stapling, in which chemical restraints reinforce the α-helical structure. These peptides, unlike the unmodified version, were taken up by cancer cells. Additionally, one stabilized α helix of BCL9 (SAH-BCL9) bound β-catenin, selectively dissociating BCL9/β-catenin complexes and inhibiting Wnt-dependent transcription. SAH-BCL9, but not a mutant control peptide, reduced the proliferation of Wnt-dependent colorectal cancer and multiple myeloma cell lines. (SAH-BCL9 did not affect cell lines that do not express BCL9 or depend on Wnt signaling.) Furthermore, in mouse xenograft models of Wnt-driven colon cancer and multiple myeloma, SAH-BCL9 suppressed tumor growth, invasion into nearby tissues, and metastasis, as well as local formation of new blood vessels, in an apparently nontoxic manner.

Thus, targeting the BCL9–β-catenin interaction may represent a useful approach for treating Wnt-dependent cancers. Additional experiments will be required to further optimize the drug-like properties of SAH-BCL9.