Rationale: NRF2, a redox sensitive transcription factor, is up-regulated in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), however, the associated impact and regulatory mechanisms remain unclear. Methods: The protein expression of NRF2 in HNSCC specimens was examined by IHC. The regulatory effect of c-MYC on NRF2 was validated by ChIP-qPCR, RT-qPCR and western blot. The impacts of NRF2 on malignant progression of HNSCC were determined through genetic manipulation and pharmacological inhibition in vitro and in vivo. The gene-set enrichment analysis (GSEA) on expression data of cDNA microarray combined with ChIP-qPCR, RT-qPCR, western blot, transwell migration/ invasion, cell proliferation and soft agar colony formation assays were used to investigate the regulatory mechanisms of NRF2. Results: NRF2 expression is positively correlated with malignant features of HNSCC. In addition, carcinogens, such as nicotine and arecoline, trigger c-MYC-directed NRF2 activation in HNSCC cells. NRF2 reprograms a wide range of cancer metabolic pathways and the most notable is the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP). Furthermore, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) and transketolase (TKT) are critical downstream effectors of NRF2 that drive malignant progression of HNSCC; the coherently expressed signature NRF2/G6PD/TKT gene set is a potential prognostic biomarker for prediction of patient overall survival. Notably, G6PD- and TKT-regulated nucleotide biosynthesis is more important than redox regulation in determining malignant progression of HNSCC. Conclusions: Carcinogens trigger c-MYC-directed NRF2 activation. Over-activation of NRF2 promotes malignant progression of HNSCC through reprogramming G6PD- and TKT-mediated nucleotide biosynthesis. Targeting NRF2-directed cellular metabolism is an effective strategy for development of novel treatments for head and neck cancer.
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