ERKMAPK activity as a determinant of tumor growth and dormancy; regulation by p38SAPK

Julio A. Aguirre-Ghiso, Yeriel Estrada, David Liu, Liliana Ossowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

466 Scopus citations


After dissemination from a primary tumor, cancer cells may resume growth, leading to overt metastasis, or enter a state of protracted dormancy. However, mechanisms that determine their fate, or markers that predict it, are mostly unavailable. We previously showed that in HEp3 human head and neck carcinoma, the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)MAPK/p38SAPK activity ratio predicts whether the cells will proliferate or enter a state of dormancy in vivo. The proproliferative balance of high ERK/p38 ratio was induced by high urokinase (uPA) receptor (uPAR) expression, which activated α5β1-integrin and epidermal growth factor receptor. This signaling pathway was additionally enhanced by uPA binding to uPAR and fibronectin binding to α5β1-integrin. We tested whether the ERK/p38 balance is predictive of in vivo behavior in other cancer cell types and whether altering the balance will shift their phenotype between proliferation and dormancy. ERK and p38 activities were determined using either phospho-specific monoclonal antibodies or a trans-reporting system where GAL4-Elk and GAL4-CHOP trans-activation of luciferase gene served as reporters for ERK and p38 activities, respectively. We show that in breast, prostate, melanoma, and fibrosarcoma cell lines, the level of active phospho-ERK and the ERK/p38 activity ratio predict for the in vivo behavior in ∼90% of the cell lines tested. Modulation of ERK/p38 activity ratio by multiple pharmacological and genetic interventions confirms that high ERK/p38 ratio favors tumor growth, whereas high p38/ERK ratio induces tumor growth arrest (dormancy) in vivo and that ERK is negatively regulated by p38. A melanoma cell line appeared to have developed an escape mechanism to avoid the growth inhibitory effect of high p38 activity. Mechanistic analysis implicated high uPAR expression and its interaction with and activation of α5β1-integrin as determinants of the in vivo growth promoting high ERK/p38 ratio in several cell lines. The small GTPase, Cdc42, was implicated in activation of p38 and growth arrest. These results suggest that even cells that originate in advanced cancers retain a degree of dependence on surface receptors and matrix for their proliferative signals in vivo and provide a therapeutic opportunity to change their phenotype from tumorigenic to dormant.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1684-1695
Number of pages12
JournalCancer Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2003


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