Background: Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) is the seventh most common cancer worldwide. Unfortunately, the survival of patients with SCCHN has not improved in the last 40 years, and thus new targets for therapy are needed. Recently, elevations in serum level of interleukin 6 (IL-6) and expression of Twist in tumor samples were found to be associated with poor clinical outcomes in multiple types of cancer, including SCCHN. Although Twist has been proposed as a master regulator of epithelial-mesenchymal transition and metastasis in cancers, the mechanisms by which Twist levels are regulated post-translationally are not completely understood. Tumor progression is characterized by the involvement of cytokines and growth factors and Twist induction has been connected with a number of these signaling pathways including IL-6. Since many of the effects of IL-6 are mediated through activation of protein phosphorylation cascades, this implies that Twist expression must be under a tight control at the post-translational level in order to respond in a timely manner to external stimuli.
Methodology/principal findings: Our data show that IL-6 increases Twist expression via a transcription-independent mechanism in many SCCHN cell lines. Further investigation revealed that IL-6 stabilizes Twist in SCCHN cell lines through casein kinase 2 (CK2) phosphorylation of Twist residues S18 and S20, and that this phosphorylation inhibits degradation of Twist. Twist phosphorylation not only increases its stability but also enhances cell motility. Thus, post-translational modulation of Twist contributes to its tumor-promoting properties.
Conclusions/significance: Our study shows Twist expression can be regulated at the post-translational level through phosphorylation by CK2, which increases Twist stability in response to IL-6 stimulation. Our findings not only provide novel mechanistic insights into post-translational regulation of Twist but also suggest that CK2 may be a viable therapeutic target in SCCHN.