Background: Cyclin E, in conjunction with its catalytic partner cdk2, is rate limiting for entry into the S phase of the cell cycle. Cancer cells frequently contain mutations within the cyclin D-Retinoblastoma protein pathway that lead to inappropriate cyclin E-cdk2 activation. Although deregulated cyclin E-cdk2 activity is believed to directly contribute to the neoplastic progression of these cancers, the mechanism of cyclin E-induced neoplasia is unknown.
Results: We studied the consequences of deregulated cyclin E expression in primary cells and found that cyclin E initiated a p53-dependent response that prevented excess cdk2 activity by inducing expression of the p21Cip1 cdk inhibitor. The increased p53 activity was not associated with increased expression of the p14ARF tumor suppressor. Instead, cyclin E led to increased p53 serine15 phosphorylation that was sensitive to inhibitors of the ATM/ATR family. When either p53 or p21cip1 was rendered nonfunctional, then the excess cyclin E became catalytically active and caused defects in S phase progression, increased ploidy, and genetic instability.
Conclusions: We conclude that p53 and p21 form an inducible barrier that protects cells against the deleterious consequences of cyclin E-cdk2 deregulation. A response that restrains cyclin E deregulation is likely to be a general protective mechanism against neoplastic transformation. Loss of this response may thus be required before deregulated cyclin E can become fully oncogenic in cancer cells. Furthermore, the combination of excess cyclin E and p53 loss may be particularly genotoxic, because cells cannot appropriately respond to the cell cycle anomalies caused by excess cyclin E-cdk2 activity.