The tumour suppressor protein VHL targets hypoxia-inducible factors for oxygen-dependent proteolysis


Hypoxia-inducible factor-1 (HIF-1) has a key role in cellular responses to hypoxia, including the regulation of genes involved in energy metabolism, angiogenesis and apoptosis1,2,3,4. The α subunits of HIF are rapidly degraded by the proteasome under normal conditions, but are stabilized by hypoxia5. Cobaltous ions or iron chelators mimic hypoxia, indicating that the stimuli may interact through effects on a ferroprotein oxygen sensor6,7. Here we demonstrate a critical role for the von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) tumour suppressor gene product pVHL in HIF-1 regulation. In VHL-defective cells, HIF α-subunits are constitutively stabilized and HIF-1 is activated. Re-expression of pVHL restored oxygen-dependent instability. pVHL and HIF α-subunits co-immunoprecipitate, and pVHL is present in the hypoxic HIF-1 DNA-binding complex. In cells exposed to iron chelation or cobaltous ions, HIF-1 is dissociated from pVHL. These findings indicate that the interaction between HIF-1 and pVHL is iron dependent, and thatit is necessary for the oxygen-dependent degradation of HIF α-subunits. Thus, constitutive HIF-1 activation may underlie the angiogenic phenotype of VHL-associated tumours. The pVHL/HIF-1 interaction provides a new focus for understanding cellular oxygen sensing.

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Figure 1: Effect of pVHL on oxygen-regulated gene expression.
Figure 2: Effect of pVHL on HIF-1 and HRE activity.
Figure 3: Association of pVHL with HIF-1.
Figure 4: Effect of cobaltous ions and iron chelation on the pVHL/HIF-1 interaction.
Figure 5: Effect of pVHL on HIFα stability and ODD domain function.


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We thank W. Kaelin, C. Buys and M. Lerman for cell lines, and N. Proudfoot, A.Harris, D. Gillespie, J. O'Rourke, Y.-M. Tian and L. Nicholls. Financial support was from the Wellcome Trust, the Barnes Trust, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Cancer Research Campaign, Action Research and the Medical Research Council.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Ratcliffe.

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Maxwell, P., Wiesener, M., Chang, GW. et al. The tumour suppressor protein VHL targets hypoxia-inducible factors for oxygen-dependent proteolysis. Nature 399, 271–275 (1999).

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