Transforming Growth Factor-Beta Signalling in Human Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • Aidan Michael Rose

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    There is an urgent need to define the key pathological driving events in human cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC) in order to identify novel therapeutic targets. Already the second most common form of human non-melanoma skin cancer, the incidence of cSCC has continued to rise at epidemic proportions over the past two decades. Rarely, cSCC can be highly aggressive, causing significant soft-tissue defects in sun-exposed areas of skin and progressing to metastatic disease, which is usually associated with poor survival.

    The transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) signalling pathway is known to play key regulatory roles in skin homeostasis and wound repair. Murine studies indicate that loss of TGF-β signalling is sufficient to drive cSCC, but conclusive evidence for a similar role in human cSCC remains elusive. Combining immunohistochemical and genetic studies of the TGF-β signalling pathway on human cSCC tissue, with a thorough examination of TGF-β responses in human primary cSCC cell lines in-vitro, this thesis aims to investigate the complex role of TGF-β signalling in human cSCC.

    An extensive tissue micro-array analysis demonstrated the consistent reduction of endogenous TGF-β signalling activity in human primary cSCC. This intriguingly correlated with higher risk thick tumours pathologically, indicating that TGF-β is likely to act primarily as a tumour suppressor in human cSCC and its reduction or loss may impart a significant growth advantage for cSCC tumour cells. This tumour suppressor effect was reflected in-vitro, whereby the majority of primary cSCC cell lines remained sensitive to TGF-β mediated growth arrest. Resistance to TGF-β tumour suppression was also identified, and mechanistically its main protagonist in cSCC cell lines appeared to be mutational loss of TGF-β receptors. Consolidating in-vitro findings, both whole exome sequencing and 454 pyrosequencing of human cSCC tissue revealed frequent functionally damaging mutations of both TGF-β type 1 and type 2 receptors, indicating that mutational loss of the TGF-β pathway may be a key driving event in human cSCC tumourigenesis. Perhaps most interestingly, mutational loss of TGF-β type 2 receptors in cSCC cell lines appeared to result in a novel pro-oncogenic dependence on TGF-β type 1 receptor kinase activity, highlighting not only the important paradoxical role of TGF-β mediated tumour promotion in cSCC, but also the potential for signalling crosstalk between alternative TGF-β superfamily members, namely Activin signalling, to drive tumourigenesis in the absence of active TGF-β signalling.

    Although further mechanistic studies are required to support this hypothesis, the mutational status of TGF-β type 2 receptors may not only provide a powerful prognostic tool for patients with cSCC, but also represent an important biomarker for the targeted use of TGF-β inhibitors in potentially aggressive disease where pro-tumourigenic responses could be driving disease progression.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsCancer Research UK
    SupervisorGareth Inman (Supervisor) & Sara Marshall (Supervisor)


    • TGF-beta
    • Skin
    • Cancer

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