Review

Oncogene (2008) 27, 877–895; doi:10.1038/sj.onc.1210704; published online 27 August 2007

BRAFE600 in benign and malignant human tumours

C Michaloglou1,3, L C W Vredeveld1,3, W J Mooi2 and D S Peeper1

  1. 1Division of Molecular Genetics, The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  2. 2Department of Pathology, Vrije University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Correspondence: Dr DS Peeper, Division of Molecular Genetics, The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Plesmanlaan 121, Amsterdam 1066 CX, The Netherlands. E-mail: d.peeper@nki.nl

3These authors contributed equally to this work.

Received 3 July 2007; Accepted 4 July 2007; Published online 27 August 2007.

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Abstract

Of the RAF family of protein kinases, BRAF is the only member to be frequently activated by mutation in cancer. A single amino acid substitution (V600E) accounts for the vast majority and results in constitutive activation of BRAF kinase function. Its expression is required to maintain the proliferative and oncogenic characteristics of BRAFE600-expressing human tumour cells. Although BRAFE600 acts as an oncogene in the context of additional genetic lesions, in primary cells it appears to be associated rather with transient stimulation of proliferation. Eventually, BRAFE600 signalling triggers cell cycle arrest with the hallmarks of cellular senescence, as is illustrated by several recent studies in cultured cells, animal models and benign human lesions. In this review, we will discuss recent advances in our understanding of the role of BRAFE600 in benign and malignant human tumours and the implications for therapeutic intervention.

Keywords:

BRAF/B-RAF, melanoma, naevus/nevus, thyroid, senescence, cancer

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RAF kinase family in signal transduction

BRAF is a member of the RAF family of protein kinases, comprising three members: ARAF, BRAF and CRAF (reviewed in Chong et al., 2003). Homologues of the three corresponding genes are found in all vertebrates, while a single Raf gene exists in invertebrates (for example, D-Raf in Drosophila melanogaster and lin-45 in Caenorhabditis elegans), whose sequence is most closely related to BRAF. The RAF gene products are RAS effectors, participating in the ERK (MAPK) signalling pathway, which connects extracellular signals to transcriptional regulation (reviewed in McKay and Morrison, 2007) (Figure 1). RAS is activated by growth factor and hormone signalling and activates multiple downstream pathways controlling cellular survival, proliferation and differentiation. In its active GTP-bound state it binds to RAF proteins (also named MAPKKKs), thereby recruiting them to the plasma membrane. Once localized at the membrane these kinases are activated by a series of phosphorylation and dephosphorylation events. BRAF and CRAF can also heterodimerize in response to mitogenic signals and the activity of the complex requires at least one of the two monomers to be active (Rushworth et al., 2006). Activated RAF proteins phosphorylate and activate MEK1 and 2 (MAPKKs), which in turn phosphorylate and activate ERK1 and 2 (MAPKs). These phosphorylate several cytoplasmic and nuclear targets, including transcription factors such as Ets-1, c-Jun and c-Myc. The multiple steps in the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway provide a mechanism of signal amplification as well as a platform for signal modulation by other factors.

Figure 1.
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Signalling pathways involved in tumorigenesis. Schematic representation of the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK signalling pathway, which feeds into various effector processes, including those governing cell proliferation and survival. In addition, in melanocytes the microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF) transcription factor is under (both positive and negative) control of BRAF- (and cAMP-) dependent signals to regulate melanin production in response to αMSH. Whereas in non-malignant cells BRAF activity is modulated as a function of extracellular signals through RTKs, the cancer-derived BRAFE600 mutant functions autonomously. A central cell cycle pathway downstream of BRAF corresponds to the p16INK4a/CDK4/pRB/E2F route, which in melanocytes is also under control of MITF. The CDK inhibitor p21CIP1 acts as a nodal point connecting the pRB pathway to the p53 tumour suppressor and MITF. Proteins are colour-coded as explained in the insert.

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The first RAF member to be cloned was murine Craf (often referred to as Raf-1), which was identified as an oncogene carried by the 3611-MSV virus. It was designated v-raf because of the ability of the virus to induce rapidly growing fibrosarcomas in mice (Rapp et al., 1983). Around the same time, chicken Raf was cloned from an avian virus (Mill-Hill No 2) and termed v-mil (Jansen et al., 1983, 1984). Cloning of human CRAF, ARAF and BRAF followed shortly afterwards (Bonner et al., 1985; Huebner et al., 1986; Beck et al., 1987; Ikawa et al., 1988; reviewed in Wellbrock et al., 2004). In 2003, an omission of three nucleotides from the first exon in the sequence of the human BRAF gene in NCBI was identified and corrected, resulting in the change of the numbering of protein residues (Kumar et al., 2003a). In this review, we will be using the updated numbering system (reviewed in Wellbrock et al., 2004).

RAF proteins contain three conserved regions, CR1, 2 and 3 (Figure 2) (reviewed in Garnett and Marais, 2004; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2005). CR1 and CR2 are regulatory domains. Binding to RAS and recruitment to the plasma membrane is accomplished through the RAS-binding domain (RBD) and the Cystein-rich domain (CRD), both of which are located in CR1. CR3 comprises the kinase domain, which in turn contains two regions important for RAF activation: the activation segment and the negatively charged regulatory-region (N-region). Phosphorylation of two key residues (T599 and S602 for BRAF) within the activation segment is necessary for RAF activation (Zhang and Guan, 2000; reviewed in Gray-Schopfer et al., 2005). The N-region contains a SSYY motif (S338SYY in CRAF and S298SYY in ARAF), which is also subject to phosphorylation (Fabian et al., 1993; King et al., 1998). The first serine and last tyrosine residues of this motif in CRAF and ARAF must be phosphorylated for activation (Marais et al., 1997; Mason et al., 1999). In contrast, the serine residue S446 in BRAF is constitutively phosphorylated, and instead of tyrosine residues, aspartic acids (D448D449) are encoded, mimicking phosphorylated tyrosines (Figure 2). As a result, activation of BRAF requires fewer phosphorylation steps. These structural differences with the two other RAF family members, can explain the higher steady-state kinase activity of BRAF (reviewed in Garnett and Marais, 2004; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2005), which is further supported by the finding that the N-region sequence and phosphorylation status play essential roles in determining the kinase activity of both BRAF and CRAF cancer-related mutants (Emuss et al., 2005).

Figure 2.
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Schematic representation of the BRAF protein kinase. The three conserved regions CR1, 2 and 3 are highlighted blue. CR1 and 2 are regulatory domains and CR3 represents the catalytic domain. The Ras-binding domain (RBD) and Cystein-rich domain (CRD) are located in CR1. The N-region, Glycine-rich loop and activation segment are located in CR3. S446 in the SSDD motif, responsible for the negative charge of the negatively charged regulatory-region (N-region) in BRAF, is constitutively phosphorylated. Phosphorylation of residues T599 and S602 results in BRAF activation. The position of the mutational hotspot V600E is indicated by an asterisk.

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BRAF mutations in cancer

BRAF is the only RAF protein to be frequently mutated in cancer, probably because its constitutive activation requires fewer mutational events. No ARAF mutations have been identified so far (Emuss et al., 2005; Lee et al., 2005). CRAF mutations are rarely found (Emuss et al., 2005; Zebisch et al., 2006), but the gene is overexpressed in some ovarian and pulmonary carcinomas, raising the possibility that also CRAF can act as an oncogene in man (Rapp et al., 1988; McPhillips et al., 2006).

Biochemical characteristics of cancer-associated BRAF mutants

The identification of BRAF mutations in human cancers stimulated intensive study of this gene (Davies et al., 2002). Mutations were identified in approximately 66% of melanomas, and in a smaller percentage of other tumours, including thyroid, colonic and ovarian carcinomas and some sarcomas (Davies et al., 2002; Cohen et al., 2003; Kimura et al., 2003). The most common BRAF mutation corresponds to a T>A transversion at position 1799, resulting in the substitution of Valine by Glutamate at position 600 of the protein (Figure 2). The mutant amino acid is situated between residues T599 and S602, the phosphorylation of which is responsible and sufficient for BRAF activity. The V600E mutation is therefore thought to mimic T599/S602 phosphorylation, rendering BRAF constitutively active (Figure 3). This view is further supported by the finding that BRAFV600E (from hereon referred to as BRAFE600) displays increased kinase activity relative to the wild-type (wt) protein and has transforming capacity (Davies et al., 2002). Furthermore, BRAFE600 is insensitive to the SPRY2-mediated negative feedback loop that inhibits MEK/ERK signalling in cells expressing wt BRAF (Tsavachidou et al., 2004). BRAFE600 activity is also independent of the presence of a negative charge in the N-region normally required for wt BRAF and CRAF activation (Emuss et al., 2005; Brummer et al., 2006).

Figure 3.
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Oncogenic signalling by the RAS/RAF pathway. In response to mitogenic stimuli, wild-type RAS can signal to all three RAF proteins. Oncogenic RAS and BRAF mutants activate MEK/ERK independently of mitogenic signals. In melanoma cell lines, RASV12 signals exclusively via CRAF. BRAF mutants associated with high kinase activity (block arrows; for example, V600E, K601E, or similar mutants (not shown)) or intermediate activity (thin arrows; for example, G466A, G469E, N581S or similar mutants (not shown)) stimulate MEK directly, whereas impaired activity mutants (G466E, G466V and G596R) require CRAF for MEK activation.

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Cell lines expressing BRAFE600 are dependent on it for proliferation and survival (Calipel et al., 2003; Hingorani et al., 2003; see below) and most do not require RAS for proliferation (Davies et al., 2002), although some are sensitive to RAS inhibition in an ERK-independent way (Calipel et al., 2003) (Figures 1 and 3). The capacity of BRAFE600 to signal independently from RAS is further supported by the observation that chicken BRAFE600 harbouring a second mutation in the RBD that prevents RAS binding can still induce ERK phosphorylation (Brummer et al., 2006). Intriguingly, although most BRAF mutants display elevated kinase activity compared to the wt protein, four cancer-derived mutants have reduced kinase activity (Wan et al., 2004). Three of these mutants (BRAFG466E, BRAFG466V and BRAFG596R) are capable of inducing ERK phosphorylation through heterodimerization with CRAF (Figure 3). The fourth mutant (BRAFD594V) acts like a kinase-dead mutant and cannot bind CRAF. Its role in tumorigenesis remains to be elucidated. Although all BRAF cancer mutants are capable of dimerizing with CRAF, only the three ‘impaired kinase activity’ mutants rely totally on CRAF for ERK activation (Wan et al., 2004).

Melanoma susceptibility and BRAF mutations

Germline BRAF mutations have recently been identified in Cardio-Facio-Cutaneous (CFC) syndrome patients. From a total of 12 different mutations, 5 are found in codons mutated in cancer of which 2 correspond to cancer-related substitutions. However, the association of CFC syndrome with cancer is rare (van Den Berg and Hennekam, 1999; Niihori et al., 2006; Rodriguez-Viciana et al., 2006). Two BRAF mutations have also been identified in individuals with Costello syndrome (CS), a syndrome similar to the CFC (Rauen, 2006). No BRAFE600 mutations have been identified in either CFC syndrome or CS patients so far. Studies of melanoma patients have revealed little evidence that BRAF is a melanoma susceptibility gene (Lang et al., 2003; Laud et al., 2003; Meyer et al., 2003a; Jackson et al., 2005). There is only one report on two germline mutations (M116R and Q608H) in three individuals (Casula et al., 2004). In a BRAFE600 knock-in mouse model, expression of BRAFE600 in all tissues results in embryonic lethality by day E7.5, making it unlikely that this mutation would be compatible with life in humans (Mercer et al., 2005). It is, however, intriguing that some CFC mutants display apparently similar in vitro kinase activity as BRAFE600. The possible contribution of BRAF single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in melanoma susceptibility remains a controversial issue. Non-coding SNPs in the BRAF gene have been linked to increased risk of melanoma development (Meyer et al., 2003b; James et al., 2005), although opposing results have also been published (Laud et al., 2003; Jackson et al., 2005).

BRAF mutations in malignant tumours

Among human cancers, BRAF mutations are most common in melanoma. The prevalence of BRAF mutations varies substantially among the different types of melanoma. They are most common in cutaneous melanoma, rare in mucosal, acral and conjunctival melanomas, and virtually absent from uveal melanomas. So, although melanoma can arise in all of the locations where melanocytes reside, oncogenic BRAF mutations are most frequently observed in melanomas that arise in the skin. Furthermore, within the group of cutaneous melanomas, BRAF mutations are found primarily in melanomas of intermittently sun-exposed skin rather than chronically sun-damaged skin. The latter melanomas, which typically harbour wt BRAF, generally arise later in life (Maldonado et al., 2003; Cohen et al., 2004; Curtin et al., 2005). Mutations in the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway components are frequently observed in melanoma; in cases where BRAF is not mutated, other oncogenic lesions affect proteins acting either upstream or downstream of BRAF (Chin et al., 2006). NRAS mutations are found in all subtypes of melanoma, although the overall mutation frequency is lower than that of BRAF (for example, 22 versus 59% in the study by Curtin et al., 2005). With few exceptions, BRAF and (N−, H−, K−) RAS mutations are mutually exclusive. Although there are some reports of BRAF mutations coinciding with RAS mutations within the same tumour, the oncogenic nature of these mutations and their co-existence in the same cell are not always clear (Davies et al., 2002; Gorden et al., 2003; Kumar et al., 2003b; Sensi et al., 2006). Mutations in cKIT, a tyrosine kinase receptor for Kit ligand (stem cell factor (SCF)), are most common in mucosal, acral and chronically sun-damaged skin melanomas (Willmore-Payne et al., 2005; Curtin et al., 2006; Willmore-Payne et al., 2006). CCND1, encoding Cyclin D1, is amplified most commonly in melanomas without BRAF or RAS mutations, whereas melanomas with mutation in either of the latter two genes display elevated Cyclin D1 levels (Errico et al., 2003; Curtin et al., 2005). CDK4 amplifications are more common in acral and mucosal melanomas and are also inversely correlated with BRAF or RAS mutations or CCND1 amplifications (Curtin et al., 2005). It is therefore evident that constitutive activation of the RAS/MEK/ERK pathway, by oncogenic lesions in one of the pathway's components, is an important step in melanoma development.

In addition to genetic alterations in RET/PTC, NTRK1, PPARγ, HRAS and NRAS, mutations in BRAF represent the most common oncogenic lesion found in thyroid cancer (reviewed in Xing, 2005; Ciampi and Nikiforov, 2005; Kondo et al., 2006; Trovisco et al., 2006). As in melanoma, BRAF mutations are mutually exclusive with RAS mutations or RET/PTC rearrangements: the presence of one seems to make the others redundant, probably because all result in activation of the MEK/ERK pathway. The V600E amino acid substitution accounts for virtually all BRAF mutations found in thyroid cancer (reviewed in Xing, 2005; Ciampi and Nikiforov, 2005; Kondo et al., 2006; Trovisco et al., 2006), with only one rare exception (K601E; Soares et al., 2003; Lima et al., 2004). BRAFE600 is most common in papillary and anaplastic thyroid cancer (PTC (44%) and ATC (24%), respectively; Xing, 2005) and it is practically absent from follicular thyroid carcinomas and follicular adenomas (FTC and FTA respectively), which more often carry RAS mutations, and from medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTC). Within the PTC group, BRAFE600 is more commonly found in the conventional PTC and tall-cell PTC subtypes, compared to follicular-variant PTC (reviewed in Xing, 2005; Ciampi and Nikiforov, 2005; Kondo et al., 2006; Trovisco et al., 2006). Furthermore, BRAFE600 is observed in adult onset PTC as opposed to the rare paediatric PTC, which more often harbours RET/PTC rearrangements. However, a rearrangement of chromosome 7q involving BRAF and AKAP9 is found in a subset of thyroid tumours in children exposed to radiation after the Chernobyl accident (Ciampi et al., 2005a). The chimeric protein displays similar kinase activity and transforming capacity as BRAFE600, which probably accounts for its oncogenic role. Finally, gains of chromosome 7 or BRAF amplification have been reported in PTC, FTC and FTA, indicating a third possible mechanism of increased BRAF activity in thyroid tumours (Ciampi et al., 2005b).

Despite several attempts (Pavey et al., 2004; Bloethner et al., 2005), microarray gene expression analysis of large panels of melanoma cell lines has failed to reveal a significant and specific BRAFE600 signature (Hoek et al., 2006). In contrast, signatures of different tumour subsets have been reported in melanoma specimens, for instance, radial versus vertical growth phase tumours (Haqq et al., 2005). Furthermore, a global expression analysis of a large panel of PTCs did reveal three distinct gene expression profiles for tumours with BRAF, RET/PTC or RAS mutations, which correlate with histological tumour type (Giordano et al., 2005). However, it is still unclear whether specific mutations induce a specific type of tumour, or whether specific mutations confer a selective advantage to the tumour cells of some histological types but not others. Perhaps, the lack of a specific BRAFE600 signature in melanoma cell lines reflects the fact that cell lines and not tumours were used for analysis.

A question arising from the analyses of melanoma and thyroid cancer mutations is why BRAF is more commonly activated in these tumours than RAS is. While BRAF is merely a RAS effector, activation of the latter is not only just pro-mitogenic, via RAF/MEK/ERK signalling, but also increases cell survival through other pathways (Figure 1). The answer might lie in the nature of melanocytes and thyroid cells, as has been suggested recently by Marais and colleagues (Dumaz et al., 2006; Dhomen and Marais, 2007). Melanin production, one of the main functions of melanocytes, is stimulated by α-melanocyte stimulating hormone (αMSH) (Figure 1). This hormone is secreted by keratinocytes and binds to the melanocortin 1 receptor, MC1R (Sturm, 2002; Wong and Rees, 2005). This G protein-coupled receptor triggers the cyclic adenosine mono-phosphate (cAMP) pathway in a protein kinase A (PKA)-dependent fashion. Similarly, in thyroid follicular cells, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) signalling results in elevated cAMP levels. This second messenger can either activate or suppress the ERK pathway and can have a pro- or anti-proliferative effect, depending on cellular context. This dual potential is partially dependent on the RAF kinase in use (Stork and Schmitt, 2002). When present, BRAF seems to be the preferred MAPKKK and as such is most often activated by cAMP signalling. In BRAF-expressing cells of melanocytic origin (normal human melanocytes, immortal mouse melanocytes and mouse melanoma cells), in which cAMP plays a key role in proliferation and differentiation, cAMP activates the ERK pathway in a RAS- and BRAF-dependent way (Busca et al., 2000; Dumaz et al., 2006). cAMP signalling also leads to PKA-dependent CRAF phosphorylation, rendering it incapable of RAS binding and thus inactive (Stork and Schmitt, 2002; Dumaz et al., 2006) (Figure 1). For this reason, it is likely that melanocytes use BRAF as the main RAS effector, similarly to melanoma cell lines harbouring mutant BRAF. When RAS is mutated however, BRAF is no longer necessary for ERK activation, whereas CRAF is (Dumaz et al., 2006) (Figure 3). Such a RAS–CRAF cascade would require inactive PKA and hence disrupted MC1R signalling. In accordance with this, melanoma cell lines carrying a RAS mutation are unresponsive to αMSH (Dumaz et al., 2006). It has therefore been suggested that RAS mutations become oncogenic in melanocytes only after a second hit that disrupts αMSH/MC1R signalling. Consequently, activating RAS mutations correspond to relatively rare events, compared to BRAF mutations, which can be tolerated in the presence of functional MC1R signalling (Dhomen and Marais, 2007). The matters are more complicated however, as within the group of intermittently sun-exposed skin, BRAF-mutant tumours are often associated with the presence of one or more MC1R allele variants with reduced signalling capacity (Landi et al., 2006). In fact, individuals carrying two wt MC1R alleles are less likely to develop a mutant BRAF melanoma on intermittently sun-exposed skin, suggesting that disruption of MC1R signalling provides an advantage to BRAFE600-expressing melanocytes, or might predispose them to the acquisition of the mutation. Hypofunctional MC1R variants however, could be associated with higher rates of mutation in general and not only BRAFE600. The validation of this hypothesis will require analysis of a larger number of melanomas and melanoma cell lines with respect to MC1R allelic variants and αMSH responsiveness in the context of RAS and BRAF mutations.

BRAF mutations and UV radiation

Epidermal melanocytes are very near the skin surface and are thus relatively exposed to environmental mutagenic influences, especially UV irradiation (Miyamura et al., 2007). Melanocytes produce melanins, a family of closely-related molecules derived from tyrosine, some (eumelanins in particular) providing protection from the damaging effects of solar radiation, but also constituting a risk of UV-induced macromolecular damage (mostly pheomelanins), since their irradiation results in formation of oxygen radicals. Given the established involvement of UV exposure in melanoma development, a possible explanation for the high prevalence of BRAFT1799A in melanoma would be that the mutation is UV-induced. However, the T>A transversion of this mutation is not a typical UV-induced lesion (C>T or CC>TT), which makes this scenario unlikely. Others have proposed that the establishment of the BRAFT1799A mutation occurs as a function of neighbouring UV-induced pyrimidine dimers (Thomas et al., 2006). According to another hypothesis, the BRAF mutation might be the result of UV-induced oxidation of melanin, resulting in the formation of reactive oxygen species and leading to increased DNA damage (Meyskens et al., 2001). As none of the above hypotheses has yet been proven, the mechanism—or mechanisms—underlying the acquisition of the BRAFT1799A mutation remains elusive. The fact that it is found in congenital melanocytic naevi (see below) that arise in utero, as well as in thyroid, colorectal and ovarian tumours, indicates that it can arise in the total absence of UV exposure. Whether it can occur also as a result of UV-radiation, possibly indirectly, remains to be proven.

The oncogenic function of BRAFE600 in vitro and in xenograft models

Several laboratories have investigated the potential of BRAFE600 to act as an oncogene. BRAFE600 can transform NIH3T3 immortal fibroblasts, although less efficiently so than HRASV12 (Davies et al., 2002). Wellbrock et al. (2004) performed experiments with mutant BRAF in an immortal mouse melanocyte cell line (melan-a cells) lacking expression of p16INK4a and ARF, two tumour suppressor proteins (see below) (Sviderskaya et al., 2002). Overexpression of BRAFE600, but not of wt BRAF, induces constitutive MEK/ERK signalling and proliferation in the absence of TPA. Like RASV12 (Wilson et al., 1989) and a constitutive active MEK mutant (MEKEE), BRAFE600-expressing melan-a cells grow anchorage-independently and give rise to tumours when injected subcutaneously (s.c.) into immunodeficient mice. BRAFE600 overexpression in another immortal but well-differentiated rat cell line of thyroid origin (PCCL3 cells), induces DNA synthesis, but also apoptosis. Thyroid-specific differentiation genes are downregulated and chromosomal instability is induced (Mitsutake et al., 2005). Related studies demonstrate a transformed phenotype of these cells through the ability to invade Matrigel, due to upregulation of several matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) (Mesa et al., 2006). BRAFE600 can also transform human diploid fibroblasts (HDFs) in the context of a defined set of genetic lesions namely, hTert, SV40 small t (st) and disruption of the pRB and p53 pathways, as shown previously for RASV12 (Hahn et al., 2002; Michaloglou et al., 2005). Thus, at least in the context of immortalizing genetic lesions, BRAFE600 can contribute to oncogenic transformation of cultured cells.

Several studies investigating the role of BRAFE600 on proliferation and survival of melanoma cells lines have provided further insight into its role in carcinogenesis. Treatment of cultured melanoma and thyroid cancer cell lines with either small interfering RNA (si-RNA, inducing transient silencing; Calipel et al., 2003; Salvatore et al., 2006) or short hairpin RNA (sh-RNA, mediating stable silencing; Hingorani et al., 2003) targeting mutant or both wt and mutant BRAF, leads to reduced phosphorylation of MEK and ERK (p-MEK and p-ERK), induction of cell cycle arrest, loss of anchorage independency and, depending on the cell line, induction of apoptosis. The growth arrest triggered by BRAFE600 depletion is accompanied by reduction of cyclin D1 and D3, established RAS/MEK/ERK effector proteins, which is associated with an accumulation of the hypo-phosphorylated (activated) form of pRB (Rotolo et al., 2005). Also other downstream effectors of the RAS/MEK/ERK pathway, including BRN2 and microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF), are regulated by BRAFE600 expression (Figure 1). BRN2 is a transcription factor often overexpressed in melanoma (reviewed in Vance and Goding, 2004). Loss of BRAFE600 expression reduces BRN2 levels, and downregulation of BRN2 leads to decreased proliferation of melanoma cell lines (Goodall et al., 2004). In contrast, in some of the melanoma cell lines studied silencing of BRAFE600 expression results in stabilization of MITF (a key transcription factor in melanocyte biology; see below), leading to upregulation of tyrosinase and the tyrosinase-related protein 1 (TRP-1). This induces melanin production and maturation of melanosomes and subsequently stimulates pigmentation (Rotolo et al., 2005). Although in many human tumours the degree of differentiation is linked to prognosis, increased melanoma pigmentation does not correlate with decreased aggressiveness. In addition to being required for melanoma cell proliferation and survival, BRAFE600 has been shown to contribute to invasion. Its silencing inhibits Matrigel invasion that is accompanied by a reduction of MMP2 activity and a decline in β1-integrin protein levels in melanoma cells (Sumimoto et al., 2004), consistent with BRAFE600 overexpression studies promoting invasion (Mesa et al., 2006).

The proliferative activity of melanoma cell lines in vivo is also highly dependent on BRAFE600. Immunodeficient mice injected s.c. with melanoma cells expressing sh-RNAs targeting BRAF develop smaller tumours with fewer cycling cells than control injected mice (Sumimoto et al., 2004). Likewise, experiments with inducible sh-BRAF show that BRAFE600 silencing in an established tumour (100mm3) inhibits further tumour progression (Hoeflich et al., 2006). In some cell lines, BRAFE600 silencing even results in complete tumour regression. This effect is caused by loss of proliferation, increased apoptosis and macrophage infiltration. Although even large tumours (1500mm3) can regress upon BRAFE600 silencing, its reactivation results in rapid tumour relapse (Hoeflich et al., 2006). All of these studies indicate that melanoma cell lines carrying mutant BRAF are addicted to it. ‘Oncogene addiction’, which denotes the dependency of the cancer cell on the mutated oncogene (or inactivated tumour suppressor gene) (Weinstein, 2002), is observed for numerous cancer-associated genes, including NRAS in melanoma cell lines (Eskandarpour et al., 2005), and can probably be exploited clinically, making BRAFE600 a promising drug target (see below).

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BRAFE600 and senescence of primary human cells

Replicative senescence denotes the phenomenon of irreversible proliferative arrest, first described for cells aged in culture (Hayflick, 1965) and more recently also in vivo (Herbig et al., 2006). Primary human cells can undergo several ‘mortality’ (M) stages of senescence. M0 is due to stress related to culturing conditions (for example, exposure to supraphysiologic oxygen levels). M1 denotes arrest resulting from a telomere erosion-induced DNA damage response (DDR) (Hayflick limit). M2 is caused by extreme telomere attrition, leading to chromosomal fusions and cell death. The critical role of telomeres in cancer is illustrated, for example, by the observation that mice deficient for the RNA component of telomerase (mTR/) are resistant to MYC-driven lymphomagenesis: the incipient tumour cells become senescent in a p53-dependent manner (Feldser and Greider, 2007). In most cell types in vitro, the different mortality stages can be prevented or bypassed by disruption of the p16INK4a/pRB and/or p53 pathways and/or ectopic expression of the catalytic subunit of telomerase (hTert) (reviewed in Bennett and Medrano, 2002; Bennett, 2003; Shay and Wright, 2005). M0/1 senescent cells typically are large and flat, remain alive and metabolically active, but have lost responsiveness to growth factors (Hayflick, 1965). Senescent cells commonly display increased senescence-associated-β-galactosidase (SA-β-Gal) activity (Dimri et al., 1995) and elevated PAI-1 levels (Goldstein et al., 1994). They also form senescence-associated heterochromatic foci (SAHF), stable pRB-dependent heterochromatin structures that repress E2F target genes, thus contributing to the irreversibility of senescence (Narita et al., 2003). Senescence can be induced also prematurely (that is, in the absence of telomere attrition), by a variety of stressful conditions such as tissue culture stress, DNA damage, oncogene activation and cytotoxic drugs.

More than two decades ago, it was observed that mutationally activated RAS, introduced in untransformed fibroblasts, induced cell cycle arrest rather than oncogenic transformation (Land et al., 1983; Franza et al., 1986). Only in the context of cooperating oncogenes did RAS contribute to oncogenic transformation (Land et al., 1983). In 1997, Serrano et al. were the first to describe the mechanism underlying this phenomenon of ‘oncogene-induced senescence’. HRASV12 was demonstrated to induce a permanent G1 cell cycle arrest in primary fibroblasts of murine (MEFs) or human (HDFs) origin (Serrano et al., 1997). Oncogene-induced senescence is not restricted to fibroblasts but is observed in other cell types, including primary rat Schwann cells (Lloyd et al., 1997), human ovarian surface epithelial cells (Nicke et al., 2005) and primary human melanocytes (Denoyelle et al., 2006). As has become obvious from many subsequent studies, cells undergoing oncogene-induced senescence share the key features and cellular markers with cells undergoing replicative senescence: total loss of proliferative activity, a flat and enlarged cellular morphology, SAHF formation, increased SA-β-GAL activity and elevated PAI-1 levels. Importantly, oncogene-induced senescence is accompanied by the activation or induction of several tumour suppressors, including p16INK4a, ARF, p53 and p21CIP1 (Serrano et al., 1997). p16INK4a and ARF are both encoded by the CDKN2A locus (reviewed in Sherr, 2001). p16INK4a inhibits cyclin-dependent kinases 4 and 6 (CDK4/6), thereby causing pRB to accumulate in its hypo-phosphorylated form. In this way, pRB acquires increased affinity for, and inhibits, E2Fs, transcription factors involved in cell cycle progression, DNA replication and repair. ARF inhibits the ubiquitin ligase HDM2 (MDM2 in mouse), resulting in p53 stabilization (Figure 1). The induction of tumour suppressors is one of the hallmarks of senescence, which distinguishes it from normal cellular differentiation, which is thought to depend on physiological cues, rather than oncogene activation.

ΔRAF1-ER, BRAFE600, MEKP56, all downstream and constitutively active mutant effectors of RAS, also induce premature senescence in HDFs (Lin et al., 1998; Zhu et al., 1998; Michaloglou et al., 2005) and primary human melanocytes (Michaloglou et al., 2005; Denoyelle et al., 2006; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006). Inhibition of the MEK/ERK pathway can prevent HRASV12-induced senescence (Zhu et al., 1998), illustrating the dependency of RASV12-induced senescence on the RAF/MEK/ERK pathway. These cells also display several senescence markers, but become small and refractile instead of adopting large and flat morphology and they do not arrest strictly in G1, but also in G2/M. These differences might be because in addition to the MEK/ERK pathway, RAS can activate other signal transducers, including PI3K, RAL-GDS and the Rho family of small GTPases. Moreover, upregulation of p53 and p21CIP1 is not detected in BRAFE600-induced senescent cells, but this could be cell line-dependent (Lin et al., 1998; Zhu et al., 1998; Michaloglou et al., 2005). Primary human melanocytes that overexpress BRAFE600 show a transient and moderate increase in proliferative activity before entering senescence (Michaloglou et al., 2005). This contrasts the more rapid cell cycle arrest mediated by HRASV12, which is accompanied by massive vacuolization and expansion of the endoplasmatic reticulum (ER) as part of the unfolded protein response (UPR). This response is critically involved in mediating HRASV12-induced senescence in melanocytes and acts independently of p53 and p16INK4a (Denoyelle et al., 2006). In knock-in MEFs, BRAFE600 fails to induce senescence, although the presence of additional genetic lesions has not been excluded (Mercer et al., 2005). In conclusion, in many, but not all (Benanti and Galloway, 2004), systems tested, ectopic expression of constitutively active members of the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK signalling pathway induces premature senescence in vitro.

Although both BRAFE600 and RASV12 induce p16INK4a, the subsequent premature senescence cannot be prevented by p16INK4a knockdown, at least in cultured human cells (Voorhoeve and Agami, 2003; Michaloglou et al., 2005; Denoyelle et al., 2006). In contrast, human fibroblasts harbouring a small homozygous germline deletion in p16INK4a are resistant to RASV12-induced senescence, but still enter senescence induced by BRAFE600 (Brookes et al., 2002; Michaloglou et al., 2005). Neither RASV12 nor BRAFE600 induces ARF expression in human cells (Wei et al., 2001; Michaloglou et al., 2005). p21CIP1, a key transcriptional target of p53, is not induced by BRAFE600 (Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006), and consistently, p53 knockdown is not sufficient to prevent HRASV12- or BRAFE600-induced senescence (Denoyelle et al., 2006).

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BRAFE600 and oncogenic transformation of primary human melanocytes

Chudnovsky et al. (2005) used reconstituted human skin grafts containing transformed human melanocytes on immunodeficient mice to study the oncogenic potential of a number of melanoma-associated genetic lesions, including BRAFE600. When primary human melanocytes, transformed with hTERT, a dominant negative p53 mutant (p53DN), a p16INK4a-insentive CDK4 mutant (CDK4R24C) and NRASV12, are co-cultured with human keratinocytes on artificial human dermis and grafted onto immunodeficient mice, they form invasive tumours. Whereas activated PI3K can effectively replace NRASV12, BRAFE600-transformed melanocytes unexpectedly induce only mild junctional hyperplasia, even though ERK signalling is activated to the same extent as in NRASV12-expressing cells. In this particular experimental system, PI3K pathway activation apparently represents a more potent oncogenic event than MEK/ERK pathway activation (Chudnovsky et al., 2005). Since BRAFE600 contributes to melanoma cell proliferation and survival (Calipel et al., 2003; Hingorani et al., 2003), these results could be explained by assuming that in human melanocytes, BRAFE600 acts oncogenically only in the context of other additional genetic lesions.

One such factor that might play a role in the proliferative outcome of BRAFE600 signalling is the MITF, a melanocyte master regulator that is essential for melanocyte survival, maintenance, differentiation and pigmentation (reviewed in Goding, 2000) (Figure 1). One mechanism by which MITF is regulated is through phosphorylation by ERK, which leads to its activation, but at the same time to its degradation. In most melanoma cell lines, the MEK/ERK pathway is constitutively active, resulting in low but persistent MITF levels. Since MITF is involved in cellular differentiation but also survival, it can act as both an oncogene and a tumour suppressor gene. Melanocyte cell lines with activated MEK/ERK signalling, for example as a result of BRAFE600 overexpression, downregulate MITF and produce less pigment (Wellbrock and Marais, 2005). The reverse occurs when BRAFE600 is downregulated in melanoma cell lines (Rotolo et al., 2005; see also above). Loss of MITF expression in human melanocytes results in downregulation of p16INK4a and p21CIP1, as well as in hyperphosphorylation of pRB (Carreira et al., 2005; Loercher et al., 2005). Conversely, overexpression of MITF in non-transformed cells induces cell cycle arrest, which is accompanied by the activation of the genes encoding p16INK4a and/or p21CIP1, corresponding to direct MITF transcriptional targets (Figure 1). However, when MITF is overexpressed in combination with BRAFE600, it drives human melanocytes expressing hTERT/CDK4R24C/p53DN to undergo oncogenic transformation. Consistent with a pro-oncogenic role for MITF in certain settings, MITF amplifications have been identified in melanoma, often in conjunction with mutant BRAF and inactivation of the p16INK4a pathway. Inactivation of MITF renders melanoma cell lines sensitive to cytotoxic drugs (Garraway et al., 2005). It appears that MITF can be added to a list of dual function cancer genes with context-dependent functions (Rowland and Peeper, 2006): it can act as a tumour suppressor by inducing antiproliferative proteins such as p16INK4a and p21CIP1, and as an oncogene by stimulating proliferation- and survival-promoting genes (including BCL2, TBX2 and CDK2) (reviewed in Levy et al., 2006) (Figure 1). Therefore, the biological effect of MITF activity is dependent on its genetic context, for example, loss of specific tumour suppressor genes, but also on MITF levels and post-transcriptional modification (reviewed in Gray-Schopfer et al., 2007; Levy et al., 2006).

Weinberg and colleagues (Gupta et al., 2005) subjected primary human melanocytes to oncogenic transformation by ectopic expression of hTert, SV40ER (st and LT) and RASV12. Similar to HDFs and human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs) that express these genes, these melanocytes grow anchorage-independently and form tumours when injected s.c. in immunodeficient mice. However, whereas mice injected with transformed HDFs and HMECs rarely develop metastases, all mice injected with transformed melanocytes rapidly developed metastases in the lung and to lesser extent in lymph nodes, liver, spleen and small bowel. This resembles the propensity of human melanomas to metastasize widely, even to distant sites such as the small bowel, which uncommonly harbours metastases of other tumour types. Indeed, human melanoma is an aggressive cancer, the chance of metastasis being substantial even when the primary tumour has reached a thickness of no more than few millimetres. The metastatic potential of melanocytes has been attributed to the expression of SLUG (SNAIL2), which is absent from HDFs and HMECs, and the silencing of which inhibits metastasis of transformed melanocytes (Gupta et al., 2005). SLUG is a member of the SNAIL super family comprising transcription factors involved in neural crest migration. It is expressed in normal melanocytes and naevi (see next section), suggesting that embryonic differentiation proteins involved in the migratory phenotype of melanocyte precursors predispose oncogenically transformed melanocytes to become highly metastatic.

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Activating BRAF mutations in melanocytic naevi and other benign human lesions

The term ‘benign’ denotes tumours that show no or very limited propensity to invade surrounding tissues and lack metastatic potential. In general, the initial growth of a benign tumour is followed by stabilization in size and loss of most or all proliferative activity. As a result, benign tumours seldom pose a threat to the patient, unless they happen to be located at a body site where local tumour mass effect compromises a vital body function. Benign tumours can share oncogenic mutations with their malignant counterparts and some are therefore considered to be precursor lesions with the potential to progress to malignancy, probably as a function of additional genetic alterations. A good example is the melanocytic naevus (mole), a small benign tumour of cutaneous melanocytes. Melanocytic naevi, which are exceedingly common, can be regarded as the benign counterparts of melanoma, and occasionally give rise to melanoma. Like melanomas, naevi frequently harbour activating BRAF mutations (82%; Pollock et al., 2003). In combination with the prominent role of BRAFE600 in melanoma as described above, this suggests that BRAF is involved already in the early stages of melanoma development, at least in those melanomas that arise within a naevus (Figure 4).

Figure 4.
Figure 4 - Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, please contact help@nature.com or the author

Model of BRAFE600-induced naevus and melanoma formation. Melanocytic naevi are thought to originate from the clonal expansion of a single melanocyte acquiring a BRAFE600 mutation. After an initial phase of proliferation, the naevus cells enter senescence. Escape from senescence requires an (or more) additional, yet to be identified, hit (denoted ‘X’), which might collaborate with loss of p16INK4a activity. It is unclear whether ‘X’ happens in a fully senescent melanocyte, or in a melanocyte on its way to senescence. It is predicted that such a hit triggers the naevus cell to resume proliferation. To gain immortality, however, the cells have to fully overcome replicative senescence by inactivating the p16INK4a/pRB pathway and by maintaining a minimal telomere length, which can be achieved by activation of hTERT. Full oncogenic transformation requires yet (an) additional (epi-)genetic hit(s) (denoted ‘Y’) causing the establishment of a melanoma. Alternatively, when a melanocyte already suffering from hit ‘X’ acquires a BRAFE600 mutation, it might fail to undergo oncogene-induced senescence. However, to overcome replicative senescence and undergo oncogenic transformation, it too requires additional (epi-)genetic hits.

Full figure and legend (126K)

Several types of naevus are distinguished and are associated with different frequencies of BRAF mutation. Although a large proportion of common acquired naevi harbour mutant BRAF, hardly any such mutations have been identified in Spitz naevi, which typically harbour HRAS mutations and/or amplification (see below; Bastian et al., 2000). Similarly, BRAF mutations are absent from so-called blue naevi (Yazdi et al., 2003). Although BRAF mutations are frequently present in common acquired naevi, their prevalence in congenital naevi (which are present at birth) is less clear. Several groups have reported BRAF mutations in congenital naevi (Davies et al., 2002; Yazdi et al., 2003; Michaloglou et al., 2005; Papp et al., 2005). Others however, did not detect them in congenital naevi of medium to large size and in giant congenital naevi, some of which harbour NRAS mutations (De Raeve et al., 2006; Bauer et al., 2007). A possible explanation for this discrepancy could be the differences in size of the congenital naevi studied. Indeed, according to one study there is a marked difference in BRAF mutation frequency between small (<15mm) and medium-sized congenital naevi, with the smaller samples harbouring BRAF mutations more often than the larger ones (Ichii-Nakato et al., 2006).

Naevi display many of the characteristics of senescent cells including near-total lack of proliferation (Kuwata et al., 1993; Bennett, 2003). In addition, many naevus cells express elevated levels of p16INK4a (Wang et al., 1996), show increased SA-β-Gal activity (Michaloglou et al., 2005; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006), and may contain large multi-nucleated cells (Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006). The absence of telomere attrition in naevus cells (Miracco et al., 2002; Michaloglou et al., 2005), which could trigger replicative senescence, together with the presence of an activated oncogene, imply that naevi undergo oncogene-induced, rather than replicative senescence. As they progress to malignant melanoma only very rarely, naevus-associated oncogene-induced senescence appears to act as a highly reliable in vivo fail-safe mechanism protecting from tumorigenesis (Mooi and Peeper, 2006).

Intriguingly, BRAF mutations are found also in serrated polyps of the colon, benign epithelial mucosal neoplasms that are the precursors of some colorectal carcinomas. Both serrated polyps and colorectal carcinomas often carry BRAF mutations in association with DNA methylation (Domingo et al., 2004) and microsatellite instability (Chan et al., 2003; Kambara et al., 2004; Yang et al., 2004; reviewed in Goldstein, 2006). Benign tumours such as serrated polyps differ from naevi since they are not associated with complete lack of proliferation and, as such, cannot be considered typically senescent (Minoo and Jass, 2006). Although at this point we can only guess which factors determine whether or not benign lesions can undergo proliferative arrest, they might include the microenvironment as well as the cell type. A combination of proliferation and senescence markers can provide the senescence index, reflecting the ratio of proliferating versus arrested cells. This could serve as a diagnostic tool, indicating tumour stage or aggressiveness (Collado and Serrano, 2006), although it would probably require better-defined senescence markers. Nevertheless, benign tumours can be precursors of carcinomas and as such represent a setting in which a genuine senescence-associated tumour suppressive mechanism operates in response to oncogenic signalling. Typical senescence pathways, therefore, seem to be involved in limiting the cellular proliferative potential in various settings and to various extents.

Pathways involved in senescence induction in naevi

The presence of increased p16INK4a levels in naevi implies the involvement of this tumour suppressor in their stable cell cycle arrest. Considering its frequent inactivation in melanoma, p16INK4a is an established melanoma tumour suppressor gene in humans. Germline mutations in p16INK4a and CDK4 (CDK4R24C) are associated with familial melanoma (Hussussian et al., 1994; Zuo et al., 1996) and p16INK4a knockout mice treated with DMBA develop, among other tumours, melanoma (Krimpenfort et al., 2001; Sharpless et al., 2001). Furthermore, in about 80% of human sporadic melanoma cases, p16INK4a function is lost by deletion (Curtin et al., 2005), mutation (COSMIC database; Forbes et al., 2006) or promoter methylation (Straume et al., 2002) (Figure 4). Alternatively, the pRB-p16INK4a pathway is inactivated by mutation, amplification and/or overexpression of genes suppressing pRB activity, like CDK4 and CCND1 (Wang et al., 1996; Errico et al., 2003; Curtin et al., 2005). Although p16INK4a is upregulated in human naevi and ectopic overexpression of p16INK4a in cultured cells is sufficient to induce proliferative arrest, individuals homozygous for a p16INK4a-inactivating mutation still develop growth-arrested naevi, albeit at increased number and size (Gruis et al., 1995). In addition, naevi of individuals carrying wt p16INK4a alleles often display a mosaic pattern of p16INK4a expression even though virtually all the naevus cells are arrested and display increased SA-β-Gal activity (Michaloglou et al., 2005; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006). It thus appears that p16INK4a collaborates with other, yet to be identified, genes to induce long-term cell cycle arrest in human naevus cells. Loss of p16INK4a function is sufficient to immortalize primary human melanocytes expressing hTert and endows both primary melanocytes and HDFs with increased proliferative capacities (Sviderskaya et al., 2003; Michaloglou et al., 2005; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006). It is possible, therefore, that during melanoma development loss of p16INK4a function provides a proliferative advantage rather than circumvents senescence per se. This view is further supported by the correlation between loss of p16INK4a expression and increased proliferation in human melanoma (Talve et al., 1997; Straume et al., 2000).

Although a substantial percentage of germline mutations and deletions affecting the CDKN2A locus target only p16INK4a, several familial melanoma cases carry mutations affecting both p16INK4a and ARF genes (Ruas and Peters, 1998) or only ARF (Randerson-Moor et al., 2001; Rizos et al., 2001). Furthermore, in mouse models, melanocyte-specific overexpression of HRASV12 (Chin et al., 1997; Sharpless et al., 2003) or NRASK61 (Ackermann et al., 2005) cooperates with loss of either p16INK4a or ARF in the induction of melanoma. Interestingly, in either setting a high frequency of somatic inactivation of the adjacent partner gene is observed in the tumours, indicating that p16INK4a and ARF cooperate at least in mice to suppress the development of melanoma in vivo (Sharpless et al., 2003). These data suggest that ARF has an independent contribution to melanoma development. As has been noted previously (Bennett and Medrano, 2002), it is remarkable that three melanoma susceptibility genes (p16INK4a, CDK4 and ARF) are key mediators of cellular senescence. p53, which is regulated by ARF, is not frequently inactivated in melanoma (reviewed in Hussein et al., 2003), although it is the most frequently mutated tumour suppressor in human cancer (reviewed in Levine et al., 1991). Furthermore, neither p53 nor p21CIP1 is generally induced in naevi (Lassam et al., 1993; McGregor et al., 1993; Maelandsmo et al., 1996; Trotter et al., 1997; Gray-Schopfer et al., 2006). So, it seems that the role of p53 in melanoma progression is less prominent than in other tumour types. Loss of ARF however could act as a p53 pathway-inactivating lesion. Indeed, other upstream and downstream targets of p53 have not been studied extensively in melanoma, leaving the possibility that the p53 pathway is subject to inactivation at different levels. Another tumour suppressor implicated in melanoma development is the phosphatase and tensin homologue PTEN, which is found mutated in approximately 17% of human melanomas (Guldberg et al., 1997; Forbes et al., 2006; COSMIC database). An alternative mechanism for PTEN inactivation is epigenetic silencing of its promoter, which is observed in approximately 25% of primary and up to 60% of metastatic melanoma (Mirmohammadsadegh et al., 2006). Interestingly, PTEN mutations are often found together with BRAF mutations, whereas they are mutually exclusive with RAS mutations (Daniotti et al., 2004; Tsao et al., 2004). It is still unclear however if PTEN has a role in naevus formation as well as whether loss of PTEN function contributes to early or/and late melanoma development. Finally, UPR is another mechanism suggested to be involved in the proliferative arrest of Spitz naevi, which display enhanced staining for the ER-associated UPR sensor Grp78 (see above; Denoyelle et al., 2006).

Recent data reveal that cells undergoing oncogene-induced senescence in vitro display signs of a DDR, which is causally involved in senescence induction (Bartkova et al., 2006; Di Micco et al., 2006; Mallette et al., 2007). Such DDR has been demonstrated also in premalignant lesions in vivo, which often harbour a significant pool of proliferating cells (Bartkova et al., 2005; Gorgoulis et al., 2005; Bartkova et al., 2006; Di Micco et al., 2006). Considering proliferative arrest as a central theme in senescence, analysis of the proliferative activity of benign tumours at the single-cell level will facilitate assessing the contribution of the DDR pathways to the onset of senescence in vivo.

ERK activity in benign lesions

As discussed in a previous section, BRAF-activating mutations result in increased p-ERK levels in vitro, predicting that this may happen also in BRAFE600-expressing tumours. The presence of p-ERK, however, appears to correlate with proliferative activity in the tumour rather than with the presence of a BRAF mutation, as only 23% of common naevi with BRAFE600 show p-ERK positivity (Uribe et al., 2006). In agreement with this, only 7.1% of PTC with BRAFE600, tumours with a low proliferative index, show detectable p-ERK levels in >1% of the tumour cells (Zuo et al., 2007). A note of caution is that immunohistochemical detection of p-ERK does not always correlate with western blot detection of pERK (Takata et al., 2005). Furthermore, ERK is not a direct target of BRAF (Figure 2), and therefore ERK phosphorylation—mediated by active MEK—is an indirect measure of BRAF activity, subject also to BRAF-independent regulation. Therefore, MEK phosphorylation status might represent a better indication of BRAF activity. Nonetheless, there seems to be a discrepancy between the large body of in vitro data and in situ analyses. Such an inconsistency could be the result of the fact that in vitro experiments often involve overexpression of mutant BRAF, which is not (yet) seen in naevi and PTCs. In contrast to PTC, normal thyroid follicular cells do display high levels of p-ERK (Zuo et al., 2007), which suggests that the RAS/MEK/ERK pathway is fully functional in these cells. It is therefore unlikely that the acquisition of a BRAF-activating mutation is not sufficient to induce p-ERK in these lesions. Perhaps in lesions such as naevi and PTC, ERK activity is maintained at a constitutive but low level that is difficult to detect. Indeed, it will be important to determine whether naevi are completely devoid of BRAFE600-ERK signalling. Another possibility is that constitutive BRAF signalling is dampened in vivo by way of negative feedback loops, perhaps including BRAF inhibitors and/or ERK phosphatases (Kolch, 2005; Schreck and Rapp, 2006). Such a negative feedback loop has recently been described for RAS in neurofibromas (Courtois-Cox et al., 2006) and if extrapolated to BRAF, could explain the lack of ERK activation in indolent BRAFE600 tumours. In this regard, one might hypothesize that subsequent loss of a critical component of such a feedback loop would promote tumorigenesis. Alternatively, BRAFE600-induced ERK phosphorylation could be a short-lived phenomenon that has ceased by the time the lesions are analysed. In the case of naevi, for example, transient BRAFE600-mediated ERK activation could contribute to the formation of the lesion from a single melanocyte. Once senescence is established in naevus cells, ERK activity might be suppressed. Consistent with this idea, CRAF-induced senescence in vitro has been demonstrated to be irreversible, as it is maintained upon downregulation of activated CRAF (Zhu et al., 1998).

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BRAFE600 model organisms

The first model organism used to study the role of BRAFE600 in vivo was the zebrafish (Patton et al., 2005). Like other vertebrates including man, these fish have neural crest-derived melanocytes that express, and are dependent on, MITF. Transgenic zebrafish expressing wt BRAF under control of the melanocyte-specific mitfa promoter fail to show any phenotype. In contrast, by 8 weeks of development, 10% of BRAFE600-transgenic fish develop focal sites of melanocyte proliferation, which manifest as well differentiated, stable lesions. These ‘fish-naevi’ resemble their human counterparts and fail to progress to malignancy. However, in the context of p53 inactivation, BRAFE600 fish develop malignant melanomas, whose histology resembles human melanoma. The melanomas are transplantable, display genomic instability and show p-ERK staining. In addition to serving as a model for melanomagenesis, these fish can be used in screens for melanoma-suppressing or -enhancing genes as well as for testing novel melanoma therapeutics (Stern and Zon, 2003; Patton et al., 2005).

Several BRAFE600 mouse models have been generated also. A transgenic mouse model targeting BRAFE600 expression specifically to thyroid cells shows increased p-ERK staining and an enlarged thyroid. It develops PTC with tall cell features and closely resembles human PTC with BRAFE600. Tumours of the transgenic line with high expression of BRAFE600 display areas of invasion and foci of poorly differentiated carcinoma, whereas the transgenic line with low BRAFE600 expression develops smaller tumour foci with lower penetrance and a less aggressive phenotype (Knauf et al., 2005).

Two Cre-recombinase (Cre)-mediated BRAFE600 knock-in mouse models have recently been generated. These are highly useful models to investigate the effects of inducible and tissue-specific expression of endogenous BRAFE600 at physiological levels. In the first model, Cre-mediated BRAFE600 expression during development results in embryonic lethality (Mercer et al., 2005). When interferon-inducible Cre is used, BRAFE600 is expressed in many tissues, but only liver and spleen display moderately increased proliferation. Furthermore, the mice develop non-lymphoid neoplasia of the histiocytic type, but die within 4 weeks due to bone marrow failure (Mercer et al., 2005). In the second inducible knock-in model, in which expression is confined to the lung epithelium, BRAFE600 results in the development of multiple lung adenomas (Dankort et al., 2007). These lesions appear to be dependent on MEK/ERK signalling, as is indicated by the prevention of adenoma development upon pharmacological inhibition of MEK. Importantly, when untreated, the adenomas grow rapidly until ~8 weeks, but subsequently display a dramatic reduction in proliferative activity. This is accompanied by the induction of the senescence-associated protein ARF in a subset of the cells, as well as by a newly discovered senescence marker, DEC-1 (Collado et al., 2005). This is similar to what has been observed for a KRASV12 knock-in lung adenoma model, although those adenomas display also induction of additional senescence markers (SA-β-Gal, p16INK4a, p15INK4b and DcR2; Collado et al., 2005). The BRAFE600-induced adenomas rarely progress to adenocarcinomas, unless either p53 or CDKN2A is deleted (Dankort et al., 2007). Although results from mouse models may not necessarily be directly extrapolated to the human situation, as for example, the localization of melanocytes in mouse skin is different from that in human skin, it will still be very informative to determine the effect of BRAFE600 in melanocytes or thyroid cells, also in the context of other cancer-predisposing lesions.

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BRAFE600 as a therapeutic target

Inhibition of MEK by the synthetic compounds U0126 or CI 1040 in mutant BRAF-expressing cell lines reduces p-ERK and inhibits proliferation and oncogenic transformation (Calipel et al., 2003; Solit et al., 2006). In some cell lines it induces apoptosis, which is accompanied by a decline in cyclin D1 levels and an upregulation of the CDK inhibitor p27KIP (Calipel et al., 2003). Most BRAF and some RAS mutant tumour cell lines have been reported to be highly sensitive to CI 1040, whereas cell lines without BRAF or RAS mutation are generally resistant (Solit et al., 2006), although it is not entirely clear whether the melanocytic origin contributes to this resistance. However, all cell lines that carry a mutant BRAF allele, independent of their origin, are highly sensitive to CI 1040, which is reinforced by the finding that a sensitive breast cancer cell line with previously unknown BRAF mutational status appeared to harbour a BRAF mutation (Solit et al., 2006). Consistent with MEK inhibition in vitro, PD0325901, a CI 1040 derivate, suppresses the growth of s.c. xenografts of mutant BRAF melanoma cell lines, correlating with reduced levels of the D-type cyclins and p-pRB and an induction of p27KIP (Solit et al., 2006). Furthermore, CI 1040 inhibits tumour invasion and metastasis of mutant BRAF-expressing cell lines injected intravenously (i.v.) into immunodeficient mice (Collisson et al., 2003). This could be explained by the finding that BRAFE600 signals via MEK/ERK to induce MMP-1, which results in collagen digestion and the ability to invade Matrigel (Huntington et al., 2004). Also β3- and α6-integrin may be involved; they are important in melanoma invasion and metastasis and are downregulated by MEK inhibition in mutant BRAF melanoma cell lines (Woods et al., 2001). These data show that BRAFE600-associated tumours are highly dependent on MEK, which, therefore, constitutes a promising target for cancer therapy. Several MEK inhibitors are currently tested in clinical trials in melanoma patients (reviewed in Gray-Schopfer et al., 2007).

Results from in vitro and in vivo experiments with BAY43-9006 (also known as Sorafenib and Nexavar), an inhibitor of RAF kinases, VEGFR and PDGFR (Wilhelm et al., 2004), are similar to those obtained with MEK inhibitors in melanoma and thyroid cell lines (Karasarides et al., 2004; Sharma et al., 2005; Salvatore et al., 2006). Treatment of s.c. xenografts of BRAFE600-expressing melanoma cell lines with BAY43-9006 inhibits MEK activation and reduces tumour volume, although the tumours eventually relapse (Karasarides et al., 2004). Tumours from mice treated with BAY43-9006 display less vascularization, which is followed by a reduction in the number of cycling cells and increased apoptosis (Sharma et al., 2005). Furthermore, treatment with BAY43-9006 results in reduced VEGF secretion in vitro, while si-RNAs targeting VEGF expression inhibit tumour growth in vivo. This is in contrast with previous data showing that sh-BRAF does not have an effect on tumour vascularization (Hoeflich et al., 2006), which might be explained by the use of different melanoma cells and the fact that BAY43-9006, as opposed to the BRAF sh-RNA, does not target BRAF exclusively. Subsequent studies on the same cells injected i.v. to investigate its effect on experimental lung metastasis show that the MEK inhibitor, but not the BRAF inhibitor, reduces metastasis (Sharma et al., 2005). In agreement with this observation, comparison of CI 1040 to BAY43-9006 in a ΔCRAF transgenic lung adenoma mouse model demonstrates that, although the two inhibitors behave similarly in an in vitro kinase assay and in cell lines, only CI 1040 reduces tumour formation (Kramer et al., 2004). Possibly, BAY43-9006 does not always reach the tumour cells sufficiently, or targets mainly VEGFR in vivo. Overall, these experiments show that in melanoma and other cancers, BRAF constitutes a therapeutic target that can be inhibited either directly or at a downstream level. Although BAY43-9006 has not shown the marked anti-melanoma activity in the clinic as it did in some mouse models, other BRAF inhibitors that are currently being generated and tested might prove more potent (reviewed in Gray-Schopfer et al., 2007).

It might be worth considering developing inhibitors that target multiple RAF family members simultaneously. An sh-RNA specifically targeting BRAFE600 induces apoptosis in homozygous mutant BRAF melanoma cell lines, but the existence of one wt BRAF allele is sufficient to block these effects in the presence of growth factors (Christensen and Guldberg, 2005). Since similar factors are likely to be present in the microenvironment, they may still activate the RAS/MEK/ERK pathway in melanocytes through wt BRAF, thereby interfering with the efficacy of any drug specifically targeting BRAFE600. Indeed, inhibition of both wt and mutant BRAF in heterozygous cell lines results in apoptosis even in the presence of growth factors, stressing the need for a BRAF inhibitor targeting both wt and mutant BRAF (Christensen and Guldberg, 2005). Whether ARAF or CRAF can functionally compensate for BRAF is depending on the cell line. The downregulation of CRAF does not affect the in vitro and in vivo proliferative characteristics of certain melanoma cell lines (Hingorani et al., 2003; Sharma et al., 2005) and in those cell lines that are sensitive, it does not do so via the MEK/ERK pathway (Karasarides et al., 2004). Furthermore, inhibiting the entire RAF family would impact also on tumours with RAS mutations (CRAF being the preferred RAS effector; Dumaz et al., 2006) and tumours with CRAF overexpression (Figure 3). In fact, U0126 treatment or knockdown of CRAF, but not ARAF or BRAF, inhibits p-ERK as well as cell proliferation and induces apoptosis in ovarian cancer cell lines overexpressing CRAF (McPhillips et al., 2006). Although most experiments have been performed in vitro, the results suggest that an inhibitor targeting both BRAFE600 and wt BRAF, as well as ARAF and CRAF might be more effective and applicable to a broader range of tumours.

Combining BRAF and/or MEK inhibitors with other drugs might increase the therapeutic window (Gray-Schopfer et al., 2007). For example, targeting the PI3K pathway, which interferes with mutant RAS-driven tumorigenesis (Gupta et al., 2007), might also impact on mutant BRAF tumours. There are several ways to activate the PI3K pathway, of which PTEN inactivation (Guldberg et al., 1997; Mirmohammadsadegh et al., 2006) and overexpression of AKT3 (Stahl et al., 2004) are most frequent in melanoma. Melanoma cell lines exposed to silencing of BRAFE600 cannot survive independently of anchorage, but can do so in the presence of a fibronectin matrix. The latter is accompanied by induction of p-AKT, and survival can be inhibited by treatment with the PI3K inhibitor LY294002 (Boisvert-Adamo and Aplin, 2006). Hence, interference with both MEK and PI3K signalling may be more effective against melanoma, also in vivo. Simultaneous inhibition of the RAS/RAF/MEK and PI3K pathways has been shown to induce apoptosis in melanoma cell lines more efficiently than each alone (Krasilnikov et al., 2003; Molhoek et al., 2005; Meier et al., 2007). Furthermore, several receptor tyrosine kinases, such as c-MET, type I insulin-like growth factor receptor (IGFR) and cKIT, which activate RAS, are overexpressed in malignant melanoma (reviewed in Meier et al., 2005). Downregulation of the IGFR in some mutant BRAF melanoma cell lines inhibits survival, which is probably due to loss of PI3K signalling (Calipel et al., 2003; Yeh et al., 2006).

Another approach to target tumours harbouring mutant BRAF is to take advantage of the increased dependency of this mutant protein for the heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), a chaperone that facilitates proper protein folding (da Rocha Dias et al., 2005; Grbovic et al., 2006). HSP90 has emerged to be of great importance to cancer cells. It is expressed at elevated levels in tumour cells and contributes to their proliferative capacity and survival. Other HSP90 clients include oncoproteins such as CRAF, CDK4, AKT, mutant p53 and hTERT (reviewed in Isaacs et al., 2003; Sharp et al., 2006). Preclinical data from patients with melanoma or other tumours indicate that heat-shock protein HSP90 inhibitors (for example, geldanamycin or 17AAG) display anticancer activity, making them promising drugs for melanoma treatment (reviewed in Sharp et al., 2006).

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Future challenges

Since the discovery of BRAF mutations in human cancer in 2002, its role in tumorigenesis has attracted widespread interest. Indeed, several important questions have been addressed. For example, we now know that in many tumour cell lines persistent BRAFE600 expression is required to maintain their proliferative, survival and oncogenic potential. Furthermore, with the use of diverse animal models that recapitulate the pathophysiologic situation in man, we have learned that BRAFE600 contributes to the formation of benign lesions, that progress to malignancy only in the context of specific additional genetic mutations.

Several fundamental questions however, remain unanswered. BRAF is a member of a signalling cascade that is fine-tuned by a variety of positive and negative regulators. Well-known members of the RAS/MEK/ERK pathway, such as RAS and BRAF, are frequently mutated in a variety of cancers. Although appealing hypotheses have been put forth, it is still unclear why BRAF mutations are selected for preferentially in melanoma and thyroid cancer. It will be interesting to determine whether these two cell types are more likely to acquire BRAF mutations, or perhaps share certain signals that collaborate in oncogenic transformation with mutations in BRAF. If the latter were true, one would expect a BRAF signature to be deduced from expression microarray data. Although this has been established for thyroid tumours, no such characteristic has been made for melanoma, which could reflect technical problems such as the use of melanoma cell lines rather than tumour specimens, or the common presence of ‘contaminating’ non-neoplastic cells.

Another question relates to the molecular basis underlying the high frequency of BRAF mutations in cutaneous melanoma. Although melanoma has been strongly linked to UV exposure, the mechanism of acquisition of the BRAFT1799A mutation remains to be clarified. The existence of this BRAF mutation also in tumours sheltered from UV exposure indicates the presence of alternative mechanisms. The identification of this putative mutation-inducing mechanism will likely provide molecular insight into the events triggering the early steps of tumorigenesis.

Regarding oncogene-induced senescence in vivo, various challenges remain. For example, there is a strong need to expand the number of genes that are causally involved in the cessation of proliferation. Recently reported factors like Dec1 and DcR2 are interesting new candidates (Collado et al., 2005). Proteins like these and others, yet to be identified, may serve not only as novel diagnostic tools, but will also conceivably elucidate the signalling network implementing senescence in vivo. Along these lines, it will be important to uncover the fundamental parameters determining different outcomes of the activation of oncogenic signalling pathways in vivo. Indeed, oncogenic mutations may fail to induce any biological effect at the one-cell stage, may result in either apoptosis or senescence at a time that the lesion is still very small, may induce initial expansion followed by induction of senescence or may even trigger straight progression to malignancy (Mooi and Peeper, 2006). It is this type of information that will allow us to estimate the true dimensions and effectiveness of senescence induced by oncoproteins like BRAFE600.

We and others have shown previously that naevi, which often harbour the BRAFE600 mutation, display hallmarks of senescence. Serrated polyps of the colon constitute another benign lesion, which often harbour the same mutation and have been proposed to represent another example of a benign tumour associated with oncogene-induced senescence in vivo (Minoo and Jass, 2006). Are there any more benign lesions expressing the oncogenic BRAFE600 protein? Interestingly, BRAF mutations are found in benign ovarian cystadenomas, although it is not yet clear whether these lesions display senescence characteristics (Ho et al., 2004). BRAF mutations have also been reported for papillary microcarcinoma (PMC) of the thyroid. Although this tumour is generally not considered benign, it can remain asymptomatic throughout life. Further characterization of these lesions may reveal a benign subset that is associated with senescence (Nikiforova et al., 2003; reviewed in Baloch and LiVolsi, 2006).

Finally, the high prevalence of BRAF mutations in human tumours, as well as the fact that the BRAF kinase and some of its downstream effectors represent pharmacologically tractable targets, have fuelled the rapid development of clinically exploitable inhibitors. These drugs have yielded encouraging results in vitro and are being tested in clinical trials (reviewed in Gray-Schopfer et al., 2007). With the incidence of melanoma rising, development of drugs targeting BRAF, the entire RAF family, or its effectors, like MEK should present us with strategies for improved and customized therapeutic intervention of BRAFE600-harbouring human tumours. Resolving the mechanism leading to the specific BRAFE600 mutation, as well as increasing our understanding of the signalling network downstream of BRAFE600 might yield additional therapeutic opportunities.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Remco van Doorn for critical reading of the manuscript. DSP is supported by the Dutch Cancer Society, by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and he is an EMBO Young Investigator.