Bowman BM, et al. J Pathol 2020.
Activation of the nuclear factor (erythroid-derived 2)-like 2 (NFE2L2 or NRF2) transcription factor is a critical and evolutionarily conserved cellular response to oxidative stress, metabolic stress, and xenobiotic insult. Deficiency of NRF2 results in hypersensitivity to a variety of stressors, whereas its aberrant activation contributes to several cancer types, most commonly squamous cell carcinomas of the esophagus, oral cavity, bladder, and lung. Between 10 and 35% of patients with squamous
cell carcinomas display hyperactive NRF2 signaling, harboring activating mutations and copy number amplifications of the NFE2L2 oncogene or inactivating mutations or deletions of KEAP1 or CUL3, the proteins of which co-complex to ubiquitylate and degrade NRF2 protein. To better understand the role of NRF2 in tumorigenesis and more broadly in development, we engineered the endogenous Nfe2l2 genomic locus to create a conditional mutant LSL-Nrf2E79Q mouse model. The E79Q mutation, one of the most commonly observed NRF2-activating mutations in human squamous cancers, codes for a mutant protein that does not undergo KEAP1/CUL3-dependent degradation, resulting in its constitutive activity. Expression of NRF2 E79Q protein in keratin 14 (KRT14)-positive murine tissues resulted in hyperplasia of squamous cell tissues of the tongue, forestomach, and esophagus, a stunted body axis, decreased weight, and decreased visceral adipose depots. RNAseq profiling and follow-up validation studies of cultured NRF2E79Q murine esophageal epithelial cells revealed known and novel NRF2-regulated transcriptional programs, including genes associated with squamous cell carcinoma (e.g. Myc), lipid and cellular metabolism (Hk2, Ppard), and growth factors (Areg, Bmp6, Vegfa). These data suggest that in addition to decreasing adipogenesis, KRT14-restricted NRF2 activation drives hyperplasia of the esophagus, forestomach, and tongue, but not formation of squamous cell carcinoma. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.