Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


Molecular Medicine

First Thesis Advisor

Craig Ceol


Cancer, Melanoma, Development Biology, Neural Crest, BMP signaling


Cancers often resurrect embryonic molecular programs to promote disease progression. In melanomas, which are tumors of the neural crest (NC) lineage, a molecular signature of the embryonic NC is often reactivated. These NC factors have been implicated in promoting pro-tumorigenic features like proliferation, migration and therapy resistance. However, the molecular mechanisms that establish and maintain NC identities in melanomas are largely unknown. Additionally, whether the presence of a NC identity has any clinical relevance for patient melanomas is also unclear. Here, using comparative genomic approaches, I have a) identified a novel role for GDF6-activated BMP signaling in reawakening a NC identity in melanomas, and b) identified a NC signature as a clinical predictor of melanoma progression. Like the genomes of many solid cancers, melanoma genomes have widespread copy number variations (CNV) harboring thousands of genes. To identify disease-promoting drivers amongst such huge numbers of genes, I used a comparative oncogenomics approach with zebrafish and human melanomas. This approach led to the identification of a recurrently amplified oncogene, GDF6, that acts via BMP signaling to invoke NC identities in melanomas. In maintaining this identity, GDF6 represses the melanocyte differentiation gene MITF and the proapoptotic factor SOX9, allowing melanoma cells to remain undifferentiated and survive. Functional analysis in zebrafish embryos indicated a role of GDF6 in blocking melanocyte differentiation, suggesting that the developmental function of GDF6 is reiterated in melanomas. In clinical assessments, a major fraction of patient melanomas expressed high GDF6, and its expression correlated with poor patient survival. These studies provide novel insights into regulation of NC identities in melanomas and offer GDF6 and components of BMP pathway as targets for therapeutic intervention. In additional studies, I wanted to test whether a broader NC identity in melanomas had any clinical relevance. In these studies, I performed transcriptome analysis of zebrafish melanomas and derived a 15-gene NC signature. This NC gene signature positively correlated with the expression of SOX10, a known NC marker in human melanomas. Patients whose melanomas expressed this signature showed poor overall survival. These findings identify an important predictive signature in human melanomas and also illuminate the clinical importance of NC identity in this disease.



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