Programmed cell death (apoptosis) is essential to maintain homeostasis within living organisms and is controlled by a variety of intra- and extra-cellular signals. Activation of the death receptor CD95 (also known as Fas or Apo-1) by its physiological ligand, CD95 ligand (Fas ligand), leads to apoptosis in many tissues and is especially important in the immune system.
Resistance to apoptosis is also key to the survival of malignant cells but the role of CD95 in cancer progression is complex: although the down-regulation of CD95 that is frequently observed in tumour cells could contribute to their survival, complete loss of CD95 is rare in human cancers. On the other hand, many cancer cells express large quantities of CD95 and are highly sensitive to CD95-mediated apoptosis in vitro. Cancer patients often have high levels of CD95 ligand, suggesting that CD95 could perhaps promote the growth of tumours through non-apoptotic activities. Scientists from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have further investigated the role of CD95 in several human cancer cell lines and in mouse models of liver and ovarian cancer. Cancer cells – regardless of their sensitivity to CD95-mediated apotosis – were found to produce CD95 ligand and to depend on constitutive activity of CD95 for optimal growth. In the mouse models, deletion of CD95 reduced both the incidence and size of tumours. In further studies, the tumour promoting activity of CD95 was shown to be mediated by pathways involving JNK and Jun but not caspase-8.
The study, which is published in Nature, suggests that, paradoxically, reducing rather than enhancing activity of the death receptor CD95 may be an effective way to control the growth and proliferation of cancer cells. Further research is needed to understand the switch between signalling ‘die’ and ‘grow’, but eventually soluble CD95 or antibodies against CD95 ligand could find a role in the treatment of cancer.