GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program




First Thesis Advisor

Paul D. Gardner, Ph.D.


Receptors, Nicotinic, Nerve Tissue Proteins, Nicotine, Tobacco Use Disorder, Lung Neoplasms


Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality worldwide. The main risk factor associated with lung cancer is cigarette smoking. Research through the years suggests that nicotine in cigarettes promotes lung cancer by activating signaling pathways that lead to cell proliferation, cell survival, angiogenesis, and metastasis. Nicotine’s cellular actions are mediated by its cognate receptors, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). Here, I describe the expression levels of all known human nAChR subunit genes in both normal and lung cancer cells. Of note, the genes encoding the α5, α3, and β4 subunits (CHRNA5/A3/B4) are over-expressed in small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC), the most aggressive form of lung cancer. This over-expression is regulated by ASCL1, a transcription factor important in normal lung development and lung carcinogenesis. The CHRNA5/A3/B4 locus has recently been the focus of a series of genetic studies showing that polymorphisms in this region confer risk for both nicotine dependence and lung cancer. I show that CHRNA5/A3/B4 depletion results in decreased SCLC cell viability. Furthermore, while nicotine promotes SCLC cell viability and tumor growth, blockade of α3β4 nAChRs inhibits SCLC cell viability. These results suggest that increased expression and function of nAChRs, specifically the α3β4α5 subtype, potentiate the effects of nicotine in SCLC. This dual hit from the carcinogens in tobacco and the cancer-promoting effects of nicotine, may provide a possible mechanism for the increased aggressiveness of SCLC. In addition, nAChRs can be activated by the endogenous ligand, acetylcholine, which acts as an autocrine/paracrine growth factor in SCLC. Increased function of α3β4α5 nAChRs in SCLC could also potentiate acetylcholine’s mitogenic effects. This mechanism, combined with other known autocrine/paracrine growth loops in SCLC, may help explain the ineffectiveness of available therapies against SCLC. In an effort to add to the current arsenal against SCLC, I screened a 1280-compund library using a bioluminescence-based viability assay I developed for high-throughput applications. Primary screening, followed by secondary and tertiary verification, indicate that pharmacologically active compounds targeting neuroendocrine markers inhibit SCLC cell viability.



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