Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Cancer Biology


Molecular, Cell and Cancer Biology Department

First Thesis Advisor

Junhao Mao, Ph.D.


Pancreatic Ductal Carcinoma, I-kappa B Kinase, Pancreatic Neoplasms, Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases, Transcription Factors, Carcinogenesis, Transcriptional Activation


Dissertations, UMMS; Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal; I-kappa B Kinase; Pancreatic Neoplasms; Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases; Transcription Factors; Carcinogenesis; Transcriptional Activation


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), one of the most aggressive human malignancies, is thought to be initiated by KRAS activation. Here, we find that transcriptional activation mediated by the GLI family of transcription factors, although dispensable for pancreatic development, is required for KRAS induced pancreatic transformation. Inhibition of GLI using a dominant-negative repressor (Gli3T) inhibits formation of precursor Pancreatic Intraepithelial Neoplasia (PanIN) lesions in mice, and significantly extends survival in a mouse model of PDAC. Further, ectopic activation of the GLI1/2 transcription factors in mouse pancreas accelerates KRAS driven tumor formation and reduces survival, underscoring the importance of GLI transcription factors in pancreatic tumorigenesis. Interestingly, we find that although canonical GLI activity is regulated by the Hedgehog ligands, in the context of PDAC, GLI transcription factors initiate a unique ligand-independent transcriptional program downstream of KRAS, that involves regulation of the RAS, PI3K/AKT, and NF-кB pathways.

We identify I-kappa-B kinase epsilon (IKBKE) as a PDAC specific target of GLI, that can also regulate GLI transcriptional activity via positive feedback mechanism involving regulation of GLI subcellular localization. Using human PDAC cells, and an in vivo model of pancreatic neoplasia, we establish IKBKE as a novel regulator pf pancreatic tumorigenesis that acts as an effector of KRAS/GLI, and mediates pancreatic transformation. We show that genetic knockout of Ikbke leads to a dramatic inhibition of initiation and progression of pancreatic intraepithelial viii neoplasia (PanIN) lesions in mice carrying pancreas specific activation of oncogenic Kras. Furthermore, we find that although IKBKE is a known NF-кB activator, it only modestly regulates NF-кB activity in PDAC. Instead, we find that IKBKE strongly promotes AKT phosphorylation in PDAC in vitro and in vivo, and that IKBKE mediates reactivation of AKT post-inhibition of mTOR. We also show that while mTOR inhibition alone does not significantly affect pancreatic tumorigenesis, combined inhibition of IKBKE and mTOR has a synergistic effect leading to significant decrease tumorigenicity of PDAC cells.

Together, our findings identify GLI/IKBKE signaling as an important oncogenic effector pathway of KRAS in PDAC that regulates tumorigenicity, cell proliferation, and apoptosis via regulation of AKT and NF-кB signaling. We provide proof of concept for therapeutic targeting of GLI/IKBKE in PDAC, and support the evaluation of IKBKE as a therapeutic target in treatment of pancreatic cancer, and IKBKE inhibition as a strategy to improve efficacy of mTOR inhibitors in the clinic.



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