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Antonino Belfiore and Roberta Malaguarnera

The widespread epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes has raised concern for the impact of these disorders as risk factors for cancer and has renewed the interest for studies regarding the involvement of hyperinsulinemia and insulin receptor (IR) in cancer progression. Overexpression of IR in cancer cells may explain their increased sensitivity to hyperinsulinemia. Moreover, IR isoform A (IR-A) together with autocrine production of its ligand IGF2 is emerging as an important mechanism of normal and cancer stem cell expansion and is a feature of several malignancies. De novo activation of the IR-A/IGF2 autocrine loop also represents a mechanism of resistance to anticancer therapies. Increasing knowledge of the IR role in cancer has important implications for cancer prevention, which should include control of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia in the population and meticulous evaluation of new antidiabetic drugs for their metabolic:mitogenic ratio. We are now aware that several anticancer treatments may induce or worsen insulin resistance that may limit therapy efficacy. Future anticancer therapies need to target the IR-A pathway in order to inhibit the tumor promoting effect of IR without impairing the metabolic effect of insulin.

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Roberta Malaguarnera, Angelo Mandarino, Emanuela Mazzon, Veronica Vella, Piero Gangemi, Carlo Vancheri, Paolo Vigneri, Alessandra Aloisi, Riccardo Vigneri and Francesco Frasca

Inactivation of p53 and p73 is known to promote thyroid cancer progression. We now describe p63 expression and function in human thyroid cancer. TAp63α is expressed in most thyroid cancer specimens and cell lines, but not in normal thyrocytes. However, in thyroid cancer cells TAp63α fails to induce the target genes (p21Cip1, Bax, MDM2) and, as a consequence, cell cycle arrest and apoptosis occur. Moreover, TAp63α antagonizes the effect of p53 on target genes, cell viability and foci formation, and p63 gene silencing by small interfering (si) RNA results in improved p53 activity. This unusual effect of TAp63α depends on the protein C-terminus, since TAp63β and TAp63γ isoforms, which have a different arrangement of their C-terminus, are still able to induce the target genes and to exert tumour-restraining effects in thyroid cancer cells. Our data outline the existence of a complex network among p53 family members, where TAp63α may promote thyroid tumour progression by inactivating the tumour suppressor activity of p53.

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Paola De Marco, Enrica Romeo, Adele Vivacqua, Roberta Malaguarnera, Sergio Abonante, Francesco Romeo, Vincenzo Pezzi, Antonino Belfiore and Marcello Maggiolini

Elevated insulin levels have been associated with an increased cancer risk as well as with aggressive and metastatic cancer phenotypes characterized by a poor prognosis. Insulin stimulates the proliferation, migration, and invasiveness of cancer cells through diverse transduction pathways, including estrogen signaling. As G protein estrogen receptor 1 (GPER1) mediates rapid cell responses to estrogens, we evaluated the potential of insulin to regulate GPER1 expression and function in leiomyosarcoma cancer cells (SKUT-1) and breast cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs), which were used as a model system. We found that insulin transactivates the GPER1 promoter sequence and increases the mRNA and protein expression of GPER1 through the activation of the PRKCD/MAPK1/c-Fos/AP1 transduction pathway, as ascertained by means of specific pharmacological inhibitors and gene-silencing experiments. Moreover, cell migration triggered by insulin occurred through GPER1 and its main target gene CTGF, whereas the insulin-induced expression of GPER1 boosted cell-cycle progression and the glucose uptake stimulated by estrogens. Notably, a positive correlation between insulin serum levels and GPER1 expression was found in cancer fibroblasts obtained from breast cancer patients. Altogether, our data indicate that GPER1 may be included among the complex network of transduction signaling triggered by insulin that drives cells toward cancer progression.

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Veronica Vella, Maria Luisa Nicolosi, Patrizia Cantafio, Michele Massimino, Rosamaria Lappano, Paolo Vigneri, Roberto Ciuni, Pietro Gangemi, Andrea Morrione, Roberta Malaguarnera and Antonino Belfiore

Patients with thyroid cancers refractory to radioiodine (RAI) treatment show a limited response to various therapeutic options and a low survival rate. The recent use of multikinase inhibitors has also met limited success. An alternative approach relies on drugs that induce cell differentiation, as the ensuing increased expression of the cotransporter for sodium and iodine (NIS) may partially restore sensitivity to radioiodine. The inhibition of the ERK1/2 pathway has shown some efficacy in this context. Aggressive thyroid tumors overexpress the isoform-A of the insulin receptor (IR-A) and its ligand IGF-2; this IGF-2/IR-A loop is associated with de-differentiation and stem-like phenotype, resembling RAI-refractory tumors. Importantly, IR-A has been shown to be positively modulated by the non-integrin collagen receptor DDR1 in human breast cancer. Using undifferentiated human thyroid cancer cells, we now evaluated the effects of DDR1 on IGF-2/IR-A loop and on markers of cell differentiation and stemness. DDR1 silencing or downregulation caused significant reduction of IR-A and IGF-2 expression, and concomitant increased levels of differentiation markers (NIS, Tg, TSH, TPO). Conversely, markers of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (Vimentin, Snail-2, Zeb1, Zeb2 and N-Cadherin) and stemness (OCT-4, SOX-2, ABCG2 and Nanog) decreased. These effects were collagen independent. In contrast, overexpression of either DDR1 or its kinase-inactive variant K618A DDR1-induced changes suggestive of less differentiated and stem-like phenotype. Collagen stimulation was uneffective. In conclusion, in poorly differentiated thyroid cancer, DDR1 silencing or downregulation blocks the IGF-2/IR-A autocrine loop and induces cellular differentiation. These results may open novel therapeutic approaches for thyroid cancer.