Plasticity underlies tumor progression: role of Nodal signaling

Bodenstine, T. M.; Chandler, G. S.; Seftor, R. E.; Seftor, E. A.; Hendrix, M. J.

Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2016 Mar 10; 35(1):21-39

Abstract

The transforming growth factor beta (TGFbeta) superfamily member Nodal is an established regulator of early embryonic development, with primary roles in endoderm induction, left-right asymmetry, and primitive streak formation. Nodal signals through TGFbeta family receptors at the plasma membrane and induces signaling cascades leading to diverse transcriptional regulation. While conceptually simple, the regulation of Nodal and its molecular effects are profoundly complex and context dependent. Pioneering work by developmental biologists has characterized the signaling pathways, regulatory components, and provided detailed insight into the mechanisms by which Nodal mediates changes at the cellular and organismal levels. Nodal is also an important factor in maintaining pluripotency of embryonic stem cells through regulation of core transcriptional programs. Collectively, this work has led to an appreciation for Nodal as a powerful morphogen capable of orchestrating multiple cellular phenotypes. Although Nodal is not active in most adult tissues, its reexpression and signaling have been linked to multiple types of human cancer, and Nodal has emerged as a driver of tumor growth and cellular plasticity. In vitro and in vivo experimental evidence has demonstrated that inhibition of Nodal signaling reduces cancer cell aggressive characteristics, while clinical data have established associations with Nodal expression and patient outcomes. As a result, there is great interest in the potential targeting of Nodal activity in a therapeutic setting for cancer patients that may provide new avenues for suppressing tumor growth and metastasis. In this review, we evaluate our current understanding of the complexities of Nodal function in cancer and highlight recent experimental evidence that sheds light on the therapeutic potential of its inhibition.

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