A small number of key signalling pathways collaborate to confer stem-cell properties to cells, and the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway is a prototypic example for such a pathway. Wnt/beta-catenin signalling plays important roles in embryonic development, regeneration and adult organ homeostasis. It is dysregulated in a number of different cancer types, most prominently in colorectal cancers, the vast majority of which bear mutations in components of the pathway.
At the same time, stem and most cancer cells rely on active telomerase to prevent erosion of their telomeres and maintain their unlimited replicative potential. Recent findings show that Wnt/beta-catenin signalling and telomere homeostasis are closely intertwined at multiple levels and form an integrated self-renewal programme, relevant to normal tissue regeneration, ageing and cancer.
The poly-ADP-ribosyltransferase tankyrase both promotes Wnt/beta-catenin signalling and is essential for normal telomere extension in humans, thereby providing an important link between both processes.
Our overarching goal is to understand the precise molecular mechanisms that underlie Wnt/beta-catenin signalling, telomere maintenance and their control by poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation. We have a long-standing interest in deciphering the structural basis and molecular mechanisms of tankyrase function.
Regulation and molecular mechanisms of tankyrase
ADP-ribosylation is a post-translational modification carried out by ADP-ribosyltransferases (ARTs), which transfer ADP-ribose from NAD+ onto substrates. ADP-ribosylation controls many aspects of cell function, including DNA repair, cell division, telomere maintenance, chromatin dynamics, apoptosis and various signal transduction processes. Given their roles in DNA repair, telomere homeostasis and cancer-relevant signalling pathways, several ARTs are being explored as potential cancer therapy targets.
In humans, the family of intracellular ARTs encompasses 17 members with similar catalytic domains but greatly diverse non-catalytic accessory domains. Different catalytically active ARTs can either transfer a single unit of ADP-ribose or attach ADP-ribose processively, thereby constructing poly(ADP-ribose) (PAR) chains, which can be of varying length and structure. Enzymes in the latter group are known as poly-ADP-ribosyltransferases. Compared to other types of post-translational modification, such as phosphorylation, PARylation remains understudied.
We take a particular interest in the PARP enzyme tankyrase, which fulfils a wide range of biological functions, many of which are relevant to cancer. The human genome encodes two highly similar tankyrase paralogues, TNKS and TNKS2. Both share a C-terminal catalytic PARP domain, a set of five N-terminal ankyrin repeat clusters (ARCs) responsible for substrate recruitment, and a polymerising sterile alpha motif (SAM) domain in between.
Our previous structure-function work has revealed the mechanisms of substrate recognition and polymerisation by tankyrase and shown that tankyrase can act as a scaffolding protein, independently of its catalytic function. We now aim to use both X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy to understand how tankyrase’s various domains act together. Moreover, we work with chemists to develop novel approaches to modulate tankyrase function.
Molecular mechanisms of Wnt/beta-catenin signalling, telomere maintenance and their regulation by poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation
We take a reductionist approach to study how large macromolecular complexes coordinate Wnt/beta-catenin signalling and telomere length homeostasis and how they are controlled by tankyrase-dependent poly(ADP-ribosyl)ation. We combine biochemical assays with cryo-electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography to uncover the detailed mechanisms governing the functions of these complexes and their regulation.
Besides uncovering fundamental mechanisms underlying stem and cancer cell function, we endeavour to understand the molecular basis of disease mutations and open up new opportunities for pharmacological intervention.
We use purified proteins to reconstitute Wnt/beta-catenin signalling in vitro, interrogating signalling mechanisms at the levels of beta-catenin destruction complex assembly and its biochemical activities. The latter encompass phosphorylation, ubiquitylation and proteasomal degradation.
Novel approaches to inhibit tankyrase function
We have observed that tankyrase can drive Wnt/beta-catenin signalling independently of its catalytic PARP activity, at least when tankyrase levels are high, and non-catalytic functions of tankyrase as a scaffolding protein are emerging. To interrogate these scaffolding functions, we collaborate with Professor Ian Collins (ICR Cancer Therapeutics Unit) to develop inhibitors of the tankyrase:substrate protein:protein interaction. Using structure-function studies, we have previously shown that the substrate-binding ankyrin repeat clusters (ARCs) of tankyrase are critical for its scaffolding activity, suggesting that targeting the ARCs by small molecules will provide a means to interrogate the non-catalytic functions of tankyrase.
|Professor Chris Lord||The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK|
|Professor Ian Collins||The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK|
|Dr Frank Sicheri||The Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada|
|Dr Edward Morris||The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK|
|Dr Mark Pfuhl||King's College, London, UK|