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Sara Redaelli, Ivan Plaza-Menacho, and Luca Mologni

The rearranged during transfection (RET) proto-oncogene was recognized as the multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2) causing gene in 1993. Since then, much effort has been put into a clear understanding of its oncogenic signaling, its biochemical function and ways to block its aberrant activation in MEN2 and related cancers. Several small molecules have been designed, developed or redirected as RET inhibitors for the treatment of MEN2 and sporadic MTC. However, current drugs are mostly active against several other kinases, as they were not originally developed for RET. This limits efficacy and poses safety issues. Therefore, there is still much to do to improve targeted MEN2 treatments. New, more potent and selective molecules, or combinatorial strategies may lead to more effective therapies in the near future. Here, we review the rationale for RET targeting in MEN2, the use of currently available drugs and novel preclinical and clinical RET inhibitor candidates.

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Iván Plaza-Menacho

It has been twenty-five years since the discovery of oncogenic germline RET mutations as the cause of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2). Intensive work over the last two and a half decades on RET genetics, signaling and cell biology has provided the current bases for the genotype–phenotype and functional correlations within this cancer syndrome. On the contrary, the structural and molecular basis for RET tyrosine kinase domain activation and oncogenic deregulation has remained largely elusive. Recent studies with a strong crystallographic and biochemical focus have started to elucidate key insights into such molecular and atomic details revealing unexpected and private mechanisms of actions and molecular determinants not previously envisioned. This review focuses on the structure and function of the RET receptor, and in particular, on what a more detailed view of the protein itself and what the current structural and molecular information tell us about the genotype and phenotype relationships in the cancer syndrome MEN2.

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D Engelmann, D Koczan, P Ricken, U Rimpler, J Pahnke, Z Li, and B M Pützer

Activating mutations in the Ret proto-oncogene are responsible for occurrence of multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) type 2A and 2B, and familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC). A striking genotype–phenotype correlation between the mutated RET codon and clinical manifestation implies that tumorigenesis is conditioned by the type of mutation. We investigated gene expression profiles between and within distinct MEN2 subtypes through whole-genome microarray analysis in tumors induced by NIH-3T3 cells transformed with defined RET-MEN2A (C609Y, C634R), MEN2B, (A883F, M918T), and FMTC (Y791F) mutations. Expression profiling identified a statistically significant modification of 1494 genes, 628 down- and 866 upregulated in MEN2B compared with MEN2A/FMTC tumors. By contrast, no obvious alterations were observed among individual MEN2B and MEN2A type mutations, or between MEN2A and FMTC. Functional clustering of differential genes revealed RET-MEN2B specific upregulation of genes associated with novel growth and survival pathways. Intriguingly, RET-MEN2A/FMTC-specific tumors were characterized by a considerable number of genes involved in the host antitumor immune response via stimulation of natural killer/T-cell proliferation, migration, and cytotoxicity, which were completely absent in RET-MEN2B related cancers. QPCR on tumors versus cultured NIH-RET cell lines demonstrated that they are largely attributed to the host innate immune system, whereas expression of CX3CL1 involved in leukocyte recruitment is exclusively RET-MEN2A/FMTC tumor cell dependent. In correlation, massive inflammatory infiltrates were apparent only in tumors carrying MEN type 2A/FMTC mutations, suggesting that RET-MEN2B receptors specifically counteract immune infiltration by preventing chemokine expression, which may contribute to the different clinical outcome of both subtypes.

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Maria Domenica Castellone and Rosa Marina Melillo

Medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTC) arise from thyroid parafollicular, calcitonin-producing C-cells and can occur either as sporadic or as hereditary diseases in the context of familial syndromes, including multiple endocrine neoplasia 2A (MEN2A), multiple endocrine neoplasia 2B (MEN2B) and familial MTC (FMTC). In a large fraction of sporadic cases, and virtually in all inherited cases of MTC, activating point mutations of the RET proto-oncogene are found. RET encodes for a receptor tyrosine kinase protein endowed with transforming potential on thyroid parafollicular cells. As in other cancer types, microenvironmental factors play a critical role in MTC. Tumor-associated extracellular matrix, stromal cells and immune cells interact and influence the behavior of cancer cells both in a tumor-promoting and in a tumor-suppressing manner. Several studies have shown that, besides the neoplastic transformation of thyroid C-cells, a profound modification of tumor microenvironment has been associated to the RET FMTC/MEN2-associated oncoproteins. They influence the surrounding stroma, activating cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs), promoting cancer-associated inflammation and suppressing anti-cancer immune response. These mechanisms might be exploited to develop innovative anti-cancer therapies and novel prognostic tools in the context of familial, RET-associated MTC.

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Jie Cai, Lin Li, Lei Ye, Xiaohua Jiang, Liyun Shen, Zhibo Gao, Weiyuan Fang, Fengjiao Huang, Tingwei Su, Yulin Zhou, Weiqing Wang, and Guang Ning

Activating rearranged during transfection (RET) mutations function as the initiating causative mutation for multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2A (MEN2A). However, no conclusive findings regarding the non-RET genetic events have been reported. This is the first study, to our knowledge, examining genomic alterations in matched MEN2A-associated tumors. We performed exome sequencing and SNP array analysis of matched MEN2A tumors and germline DNA. Somatic alterations were validated in an independent set of patients using Sanger sequencing. Genes of functional interest were further evaluated. The germline RET mutation was found in all MEN2A-component tumors. Thirty-two somatic mutations were identified in the nine MEN2A-associated tumors, of which 28 (87.5%) were point mutations and 4 (12.5%) were small insertions, duplications, or deletions. We sequenced all the mutations as well as coding sequence regions of the 12 genes in an independent sample set including 35 medullary thyroid cancers (20 MEN2A) and 34 PCCs (22 MEN2A), but found no recurrent mutations. Recurrent alterations were found in 13 genes with either mutations or alterations in copy number, including an EIF4G1 mutation (p. E1147V). Mutation of EIF4G1 led to increased cell proliferation and RET/MAPK phosphorylation, while knockdown of EIF4G1 led to reduced cell proliferation and RET/MAPK phosphorylation in TT, MZ-CRC1, and PC-12 cells. We found fewer somatic mutations in endocrine tumors compared with non-endocrine tumors. RET was the primary driver in MEN2A-associated tumors. However, low-frequency alterations such as EIF4G1 might participate in MEN2A-associated tumorigenesis, possibly by regulating the activity of the RET pathway.

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Elizabeth Grubbs, Daniel Halperin, Steven G Waguespack, and Robert F Gagel

The multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) workshops had their beginnings at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in June 1984. This initial meeting brought clinicians and scientists together to focus on mapping the gene for multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2). These efforts culminated in the identification of the RET protooncogene as the causative gene a decade later. Over the next 35 years there were a total of 16 international workshops focused on the several MEN syndromes. Importantly, these workshops were instrumental in efforts to define the molecular basis for multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1), MEN2, von Hippel-Lindau disease (VHL), Carney Complex, hereditary pheochromocytoma and hyperparathyroidism. In this same spirit some 150 scientists and clinicians met at MD Anderson Cancer Center, 27–29 March 2019, for the 16th International Workshop on Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN2019). Appropriate to its location in a cancer centre, the workshop focused on important issues in the causation and treatment of malignant aspects of the MEN syndromes: medullary thyroid carcinoma, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours, malignant pheochromocytoma and parathyroid carcinoma. Workshops at the meeting focused on a better understanding of how the identified molecular defects in these genetic syndromes lead to transformation, how to apply targeted kinase inhibitors and immunotherapy to treat these tumours and important clinical management issues. This issue of Endocrine-Related Cancer describes these discussions and recommendations.

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Daniela Cordella, Marina Muzza, Luisella Alberti, Paolo Colombo, Pietro Travaglini, Paolo Beck-Peccoz, Laura Fugazzola, and Luca Persani

Activating mutations of the RET proto-oncogene are associated with inherited syndromes, multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN2A/2B) and with familial and sporadic medullary thyroid cancer (MTC). Single base pair missense mutations in the extracellular Cys-rich domain are responsible for most MEN2A and familial MTC (FMTC) cases. Rarely, somatic deletions and germline duplications have been described in sporadic MTC and in FMTC. We report the detection and functional studies of a deletion/insertion in exon 11 (c.2646delGinsTTCT) associated with FMTC. This in-frame complex rearrangement leads to an Asn to Lys change (Lys666Asn) and to a Ser insertion. The mutation was found in the proband, who was diagnosed with metastatic MTC at 41 years, and in her son, who presented diffuse C-cells hyperplasia at 4 years of age. The mutation displayed a transforming activity stronger than Ret wild type (Ret-WT) at the focus formation assay and functional analyses after transient and stable transfection revealed an increased autophosphorylation, indicating the constitutive activation of the receptor. The transforming activity may be favoured by an increased stabilization of the fully mature form of the mutant receptor. Dimerization assay demonstrated that the activation mechanism of the complex mutation is not mediated by stable dimer formation. Computational analysis predicted nonconservative alterations in the mutant protein consistent with a possible modification of the conformation of the receptor. In conclusion, the first molecular studies on a complex germline RET mutation lying in the juxtamembrane region of the receptor are reported. Functional analyses showed that alterations at this level too can lead to a ligand independent Ret activation.

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Samuel A Wells Jr

Medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC), a tumor derived from the neural crest, occurs either sporadically or as the dominant component of the type 2 multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) syndromes, MEN2A and MEN2B. The discovery that mutations in the RET protooncogene cause hereditary MTC was of great importance, since it led to the development of novel methods of diagnosis and treatment. For example, the detection of a mutated RET allele in family members at risk for inheriting MEN2A or MEN2B signaled that they would develop MTC, and possibly other components of the syndromes. Furthermore, the detection of a mutated allele created the opportunity, especially in young children, to remove the thyroid before MTC developed, or while it was confined to the gland. The discovery also led to the development of molecular targeted therapeutics (MTTs), mainly tyrosine kinase inhibitors, which were effective in the treatment of patients with locally advanced or metastatic MTC. While responses to MTTs are often dramatic, they are highly variable, and almost always transient, because the tumor cells become resistant to the drugs. Clinical investigators and the pharmaceutical industry are focusing on the development of the next generation of MTTs, which have minimal toxicity and greater specificity for mutated RET.

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Tirtha K Das and Ross L Cagan

Twenty-five years ago, RET was identified as the primary driver of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN2) syndrome. MEN2 is characterized by several transformation events including pheochromocytoma, parathyroid adenoma and, especially penetrant, medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC). Overall, MTC is a rare but aggressive type of thyroid cancer for which no effective treatment currently exists. Surgery, radiation, radioisotope treatment and chemotherapeutics have all shown limited success, and none of these approaches have proven durable in advanced disease. Non-mammalian models that incorporate the oncogenic RET isoforms associated with MEN2 and other RET-associated diseases have been useful in delineating mechanisms underlying disease progression. These models have also identified novel targeted therapies as single agents and as combinations. These studies highlight the importance of modeling disease in the context of the whole animal, accounting for the complex interplay between tumor and normal cells in controlling disease progression as well as response to therapy. With convenient access to whole genome sequencing data from expanded thyroid cancer patient cohorts, non-mammalian models will become more complex, sophisticated and continue to complement future mammalian studies. In this review, we explore the contributions of non-mammalian models to our understanding of thyroid cancer including MTC, with a focus on Danio rerio and Drosophila melanogaster (fish and fly) models.

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M Cecília Martins-Costa, Lucas L Cunha, Susan C Lindsey, Cleber P Camacho, Renata P Dotto, Gilberto K Furuzawa, M Sharmila A Sousa, Teresa S Kasamatsu, Ilda S Kunii, Márcio M Martins, Alberto L Machado, João R M Martins, Magnus R Dias-da-Silva, and Rui M B Maciel

Germline mutations in codon 918 of exon 16 of the RET gene (M918T) are classically associated with multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B (MEN 2B) with highly aggressive medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), pheochromocytoma and a unique phenotype. The objectives of this study are to describe the rare M918V RET mutation discovered in 8 MTC kindreds from Brazil lacking the MEN 2B phenotype classically observed in M918T patients and to investigate the presence of a founder effect for this germline mutation. Eight apparently sporadic MTC cases were diagnosed with the germline M918V RET mutation. Subsequently, their relatives underwent clinical and genetic assessment (n = 113), and M918V was found in 42 of them. Until today, 20/50 M918V carriers underwent thyroidectomy and all presented MTC/C-cell hyperplasia; the remainder carriers are on clinical follow-up. None of the M918V carriers presented clinical features of MEN 2B. Their clinical presentation was heterogeneous, and the age at tumor diagnosis ranged from 24 to 59 years. Lymph node metastases were present in 12/20 patients, and presumable distant metastases in 2/20; in contrast, we observed a carrier of up to 87 years of age without evidence of MTC. Ethnographic fieldwork and haplotype analyses suggested that the founder mutation first settled in that area fifteen generations ago and originated from Portugal. Our study is the first to demonstrate the RET M918V mutation co-segregating in 8 familial MTC kindreds with validated evidence of a founder effect. We suggest that M918V MTC should be clinically considered an American Thyroid Association (ATA) moderate-risk category.