Kanazawa University Research: Possible Strategy for Cancer Treatment Found in Nuclear Transport Proteins

KANAZAWA, Japan, Dec. 17, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- The nuclear import of proteins befalls through nuclear pore complexes (NPCs) and normally requires specific transport proteins. A type of a nuclear transport protein plays a key role in the proliferation and resistance to treatment of head and neck squamous carcinoma cells, report researchers at Kanazawa University. The results suggest that targeting specific nuclear transport systems may lead to possible therapeutic strategies.

Although less often the focus of cancer research, recent studies have hinted at the possible importance of a type of protein known as nuclear transport receptors. Now researchers at Kanazawa University and collaborating institutions in Japan and the US have identified a nuclear transport receptor protein that plays a key role in processes that sustain aggressive head and neck cancers, as well as some of the mechanisms behind these processes.

"Current gene expression network approaches commonly focus on TFs [transcription factors], biasing network-based discovery efforts away from potentially important non-TF proteins," point out Masaharu Hazawa and Richard Wong and their colleagues in the report of their latest results. Taking a different tack, they noted that although abnormalities in nuclear transport receptors and their significance in the progression of cancer were not yet understood, recent studies had identified the importance of a type of nuclear transport receptor named karyopherin- (KPNA)/importin- in cell differentiation, whereby immature cells acquire the characteristics and functions of specific mature cell types. Tumors of non-differentiated cells are widely understood to be more aggressive.

Noting the role of KPNA in cell fate determination, Hazawa, Wong and colleagues re-analyzed the Cancer Genome Atlas, which identified KPNA4 as most highly expressed subtype of KPNAs in head and neck squamous cancer cells (HNSCCs). Using a green fluorescent protein that had a nuclear localization signal, the researchers then investigated the role of KPNA4. They showed that while this green fluorescent protein would normally then localize in the nucleus, in HNSCCs where they had "knocked down" the gene expressing KPNA4 (so that the protein KPNA4 was not expressed) high levels of the green fluorescent protein remained in the cytoplasm instead. As well as the impact on nuclear transport of molecules with the nuclear localization signal, the researchers were also able to observe how silencing the KPNA4 expressing gene reduced the "cell proliferation, migration ability and resistance to radiation" in HNSCCs.

Further studies revealed not only the role of KPNA4 in repressing differentiation of epithelial cells, but also important transcription factors and signaling pathways controlled by KPNA4-dependent nuclear import systems. In their report the researchers conclude, "Taken together, these results indicate that targeting disease-specifically altered transport systems may serve as promising therapeutic strategies for cancer treatment."


Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas are a non-melanoma type of skin cancer, which are the 5(th) most commonly occurring cancers worldwide. It is a disease that affects the squamous epithelium - flat cells found lining the skin and mucous membranes. Head and neck squamous cancer affects the mucous cells in the mouth, nose and throat.

Transcription factors

Transcription factors read and interpret the genetic code in cells. They bind to specific sequences of DNA and control the rate of transcription of that genetic code to messenger RNA, which then conveys that genetic information in the synthesis of new proteins. A number of cancer-suppressing transcription factors have already been identified.

Nuclear transport receptors

While small molecules can move relatively freely across the cell membrane, larger molecules such as proteins need nuclear transport receptors such as karyopherins/importins to enter or leave the cell. Karyopherins help macromolecules navigate the nuclear pore complexes that act as the gateway to the cell.


In a complex organism like a human most cells undergo several differentiations from the initial immature cell into more specialized mature cells that often have very different structures and functions. The process generally involves the activation of a dormant transcription factor.

Hazawa, Wong and colleagues noticed lower levels of KPNA4 where epithelial differentiation increased. Further tests identified that a particular protein regulated by KPNA4 is ras-responsive binding protein (RREB1), and that the Ras/MAPK signaling was affected. Previous work had already established the role of RREB1 in oncogenic Ras/MAPK signaling. Hazawa, Wong and colleagues found that KPNA4 activates a pathway based on Ras and MAPK proteins by mediating nuclear-transport of the Ras-responsive element-binding protein (RREB1). Furthermore, they identified MAPK-dependent processes that enhance transport activity of KPNA4, in what they describe as a "feed forward" process.


Masaharu Hazawa, Kie Sakai, Akiko Kobayashi, Hironori Yoshino, Yoshihiro Iga, Yuki Iwashima, Kee Siang Lim, Dominic Chih-Cheng Voon, Yan-Yi Jiang, Shin-ichi Horike, De-Chen Lin, Richard W. Wong. "Disease-specific alteration of karyopherin- subtype establishes feed-forward oncogenic signaling in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma", Oncogene. Published online 10 December 2019.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41388-019-1137-3

URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41388-019-1137-3

About Nano Life Science Institute (WPI-NanoLSI)


Nano Life Science Institute (NanoLSI), Kanazawa University is a research center established in 2017 as part of the World Premier International Research Center Initiative of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The objective of this initiative is to form world-tier research centers. NanoLSI combines the foremost knowledge of bio-scanning probe microscopy to establish 'nano-endoscopic techniques' to directly image, analyze, and manipulate biomolecules for insights into mechanisms governing life phenomena such as diseases.

About Kanazawa University


As the leading comprehensive university on the Sea of Japan coast, Kanazawa University has contributed greatly to higher education and academic research in Japan since it was founded in 1949. The University has three colleges and 17 schools offering courses in subjects that include medicine, computer engineering, and humanities.

The University is located on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Kanazawa - a city rich in history and culture. The city of Kanazawa has a highly respected intellectual profile since the time of the fiefdom (1598-1867). Kanazawa University is divided into two main campuses: Kakuma and Takaramachi for its approximately 10,200 students including 600 from overseas.

Further information

Hiroe Yoneda
Vice Director of Public Affairs
WPI Nano Life Science Institute (WPI-NanoLSI)
Kanazawa University
Kakuma-machi, Kanazawa 920-1192, Japan
Email: nanolsi-office@adm.kanazawa-u.ac.jp
Tel: +81-(76)-234-4550

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