Two-Step Forward Genetic Screen in Mice Identifies Ral GTPase-Activating Proteins as Suppressors of Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Takahiro Kodama, Emilie A Bard-Chapeau, Justin Y Newberg, Michiko Kodama, Roberto Rangel, Kosuke Yoshihara, Jerrold M Ward, Nancy A Jenkins, Neal G Copeland
Gastroenterology 2016, 151 (2): 324-337.e12

BACKGROUND & AIMS: High-throughput sequencing technologies have identified thousands of infrequently mutated genes in hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). However, high intratumor and intertumor heterogeneity, combined with large numbers of passenger mutations, have made it difficult to identify driver mutations that contribute to the development of HCC. We combined transposon mutagenesis with a high-throughput screen of a small-hairpin RNA (shRNA) library to identify genes and pathways that contribute to HCC development.

METHODS: Sleeping beauty transposons were mobilized in livers of transgenic mice predisposed to develop hepatocellular adenoma and HCC owing to expression of the hepatitis B virus surface antigen. This whole-genome mutagenesis technique was used to generate an unbiased catalogue of candidate cancer genes (CCGs). Pooled shRNA libraries targeting 250 selected CCGs then were introduced into immortalized mouse liver cells and the cells were monitored for their tumor-forming ability after injection into nude mice.

RESULTS: Transposon-mediated mutagenesis identified 1917 high-confident CCGs and highlighted the importance of Ras signaling in the development of HCC. Subsequent pooled shRNA library screening of 250 selected CCGs validated 27 HCC tumor-suppressor genes. Individual shRNA knockdown of 4 of these genes (Acaa2, Hbs1l, Ralgapa2, and Ubr2) increased the proliferation of multiple human HCC cell lines in culture and accelerated the formation of xenograft tumors in nude mice. The ability of Ralgapa2 to promote HCC cell proliferation and tumor formation required its inhibition of Rala and Ralb. Dual inhibition of Ras signaling via Ral and Raf, using a combination of small-molecule inhibitor RBC8 and sorafenib, reduced the proliferation of HCC cells in culture and completely inhibited their growth as xenograft tumors in nude mice.

CONCLUSIONS: In a 2-step forward genetic screen in mice, we identified members of the Ral guanosine triphosphatase-activating protein pathway and other proteins as suppressors of HCC cell proliferation and tumor growth. These proteins might serve as therapeutic targets for liver cancer.

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