Functional Interrogation of microRNA-375 in Merkel Cell Carcinoma
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Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare but highly aggressive neuroendocrine cutaneous cancer whose molecular biology is poorly characterized. Our broad research objective is to identify microRNAs (miRNA) that are biologically and/or clinically important in MCC. While attempting to establish an MCC-specific miRNA signature, we observed that microRNA-375 was the most highly expressed miRNA in primary MCC tumours relative to normal skin – an observation that I propose reflects miR-375’s specific association with neuroendocrine (NE) and secretory subpopulations within normal tissues. Here, I report that miR-375 is strikingly elevated in a range of NE tumour types compared with tissue-matched cancers of non-neuroendocrine origin. Furthermore, I show that miR-375 is expressed abundantly in a subset of MCC cell lines that possess the biochemical and immunohistochemical characteristics of NE cells, but is silenced in cell lines that fail to retain these markers. I demonstrate that the enforced expression of miR-375 induces a NE gene expression signature – a phenomenon that is mechanistically driven by the post-transcriptional repression of multiple Notch pathway components by miR-375. This work identifies the Notch pathway as a novel mechanistic link between the association of miR-375 and a NE cell fate, provides new insights into the cellular ancestry of MCC, and suggests that miR-375 could facilitate clinicopathological diagnosis of MCC and other NE tumours as a novel biomarker. miR-375 is silenced in “variant” MCC cell lines, and inversely correlates with cell doubling time and overall aggressiveness. Therefore, despite its high expression in most MCC tumours, I propose that miR-375 is an endogenous tumour suppressor. I show that the enforced expression of miR-375 inhibits cell viability, impairs cell migration and invasion, can oppose survival under stress, and represses the AKT pro-survival signaling pathway. Only siRNA-mediated inhibition of Notch2 and Recombination signal binding protein for immunoglobulin kappa J region (RBPJ) phenocopied the effects of miR-375 overexpression. Because variant (miR-375low) cell lines originate from more aggressive tumours in both MCC and small cell lung carcinoma, I postulate that miR-375 silencing occurs in a subset of MCC patients and might predispose them to a highly virulent clinical course through the disinhibition of Notch signaling.