The Wnt signaling pathway was first characterized in the 1970s in Drosophila melanogaster
development. It was later recognized in mammalian systems for its importance in cancer. Specifically, core components of this pathway were shown to be dysregulated in colorectal disease. It has since been shown to play a role in other forms of cancer, where it promotes proliferation and survival. It also plays an important role in the maintenance of the pool of tumor-initiating cells, which promote the regrowth of tumors after an insult like surgery or chemotherapy. Tumor-initiating cells are thought to be the source of metastasis. For these reasons, the Wnt pathway is viewed as a strong candidate for therapeutic intervention.
Wnt Signaling in Cancer
The Wnt pathway takes on many forms that fall under the broad classifications of canonical and noncanonical. The canonical pathway deals with the regulation of β-catenin protein levels. Under normal conditions, a cytosolic scaffold known as the destruction complex binds and phosphorylates β-catenin, resulting in its ubiquitylation and degradation. The destruction complex includes the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) protein, axin, and glycogen synthase kinase-3β. When Wnt ligand binds to the Frizzled receptor, its coreceptor LRP5/6 is recruited and phosphorylated in the intracellular domain, promoting the binding of Dishevelled protein and the sequestration of axin. This disintegrates the destruction complex, resulting in accumulation of β-catenin in the cytosol and upregulated trafficking into the nucleus. β-catenin promotes transcription of genes related to proliferation and survival by acting as a coactivator for the Tcf/Lef family of transcription factors in the nucleus.
Aside from canonical Wnt signaling, two major noncanonical pathways have been studied. In the first of these two pathways, Wnt ligand binding to the Frizzled receptor induces recruitment of Dishevelled protein and the Dishevelled-associated activator of morphogenesis 1 (Daam1). This complex initiates a cascade that activates the Rac and Rho GTPases to mediate cell polarity. The other most widely studied noncanonical Wnt signaling pathway is related to calcium signaling. Wnt ligand binding to the Frizzled receptor promotes the recruitment of Dishevelled in complex with a G protein. This complex promotes intracellular calcium levels to mediate other signaling pathways.
Biological systems tightly regulate the Wnt signaling pathway to prevent aberrant cell growth. It has been known for decades that dysregulation of Wnt signaling leads to cancer, where it was first recognized in familial colorectal disease with mutations in the APC
gene. Since then, Wnt signaling has been found to act prominently in breast, liver, skin, and prostate cancers.
Aberrations in canonical Wnt signaling can manifest in many ways. For example, proteins involved in the destruction complex can become nonfunctional through mutations or truncations, inhibiting β-catenin downregulation. The β-catenin protein itself can be mutated to inhibit its recognition by the destruction complex. In addition, the production of Wnt ligand or receptors can be upregulated, resulting in excessive signaling. These different routes of activation complicate the use of a single therapeutic against the Wnt pathway.
Wnt Signaling Pathways
This illustration depicts the best-elucidated cancer-promoting routes of Wnt cell signaling, which draws its name from the wingless mutation in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster.
Therapeutic Targeting of Wnt Pathway
Wnt signaling is of great interest to cancer researchers because it is linked to many different forms of the disease. Preclinical models throughout the last decade have established this pathway as an attractive drug target. However, to date, therapies meant to attenuate the Wnt pathway have remained largely theoretical and preclinical. Thankfully, compounds are now starting to enter clinical trials.
Vitamin D has been postulated as a suitable anti-Wnt therapy. The vitamin D receptor binds and sequesters β-catenin at the plasma membrane, inhibiting its nuclear translocation. Mice bearing an APC
mutation that promotes spontaneous colon cancer developed more disease when the vitamin D receptor was knocked out. Additionally, the association between sunlight exposure and decreased risk of colon cancer implies that the inhibition of Wnt signaling by vitamin D may be conserved in humans. This phenomenon has yet to be tested in a systematic trial, however.