The molecular networks that specify cellular identity and suppress alternative cell fates are tightly regulated during normal tissue homeostasis. The genetic and epigenetic changes that accumulate during cancer progression can disrupt these networks, often with lethal consequences for cancer patients. Loss of cellular identity during tumor evolution frequently endows cancer cells with an increased propensity for growth and metastasis. In some cases, tumors treated with targeted therapies can undergo radical changes in cellular identity that affect their sensitivity to standard drug regimens. Despite these observations, the field has not deciphered the master regulators that control cellular identity in most cancer types. Identifying these regulators and determining the specific consequences of their inactivation will provide critical insights into mechanisms of cancer progression and enable the development of new therapeutic strategies targeted to specific differentiation states.
Turning lung into stomach: We have shown that the transcription factor Nkx2-1 is a critical regulator of lung adenocarcinoma identity (Snyder et al., Mol Cell 2013). Engineered deletion of Nkx2-1 causes a complete loss of pulmonary differentiation in a Kras-driven mouse model of lung adenocarcinoma and enhances tumor growth. Nkx2-1-negative tumors exhibit a striking mucinous morphology and transcriptionally upregulate a gastric differentiation program. These mucinous murine lung tumors bear a close resemblance to a subtype of human lung cancer that also expresses gastric markers. Integrative gene expression/ChIP-seq analysis has implicated the Foxa1/2 transcription factors in the pulmonary to gastric differentiation state change induced by Nkx2-1 deletion.
Our overall goal is to determine how the loss of cellular identity and acquisition of alternative differentiation states contributes to cancer progression and alters therapeutic response. Ongoing projects are focused on two major themes: