Hypoxia and MITF control metastatic behaviour in mouse and human melanoma cells

Oncogene. 2012 May 10;31(19):2461-70. doi: 10.1038/onc.2011.425. Epub 2011 Sep 26.


Melanomas are very aggressive neoplasms with notorious resistance to therapeutics. It was recently proposed that the remarkable phenotypic plasticity of melanoma cells allows for the rapid development of both resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs and invasive properties. Indeed, the capacity of melanoma cells to form distant metastases is the main cause of mortality in melanoma patients. Therefore, the identification of the mechanism controlling melanoma phenotype is of paramount importance. In the present report, we show that deletion of microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF), the master gene in melanocyte differentiation, is sufficient to increase the metastatic potential of mouse and human melanoma cells. MITF silencing also increases fibronectin and Snail, two mesenchymal markers that might explain the increased invasiveness in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, ablation of this population by Forskolin-induced differentiation or MITF-forced expression significantly decreases tumour and metastasis formation, suggesting that eradication of low-MITF cells might improve melanoma treatment. Moreover, we demonstrate that a hypoxic microenvironment decreases MITF expression through an indirect, hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF1)α-dependant transcriptional mechanism, and increases the tumourigenic and metastatic properties of melanoma cells. We identified Bhlhb2, a new factor in melanoma biology, as the mediator of hypoxia/HIF1α inhibitory effect on MITF expression. Our results reveal a hypoxia-HIF1α-BHLHB2-MITF cascade controlling the phenotypic plasticity in melanoma cells and favouring metastasis development. Targeting this pathway might be helpful in the design of new anti-melanoma therapies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Cell Hypoxia
  • Gene Silencing
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / genetics
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / metabolism*
  • Melanoma / metabolism
  • Melanoma / secondary*
  • Melanoma, Experimental / metabolism
  • Melanoma, Experimental / secondary
  • Mesoderm / metabolism
  • Mesoderm / pathology
  • Mice
  • Microphthalmia-Associated Transcription Factor / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Microphthalmia-Associated Transcription Factor / genetics
  • Microphthalmia-Associated Transcription Factor / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Skin Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology*


  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • Microphthalmia-Associated Transcription Factor