Polo-like kinase 1 is a serine/threonine kinase which plays an essential role in mitosis and malignant transformation. The aim of this study was to investigate the prognostic significance of polo-like kinase 1 expression and determine its possibility as a therapeutic target in non-small cell lung cancer. Semi-quantitative RT-PCR assay was performed to detect polo-like kinase 1 mRNA expression in non-small cell lung cancer cells or tissues. Immunohistochemistry was performed to detect polo-like kinase 1 protein expression in 100 non-small cell lung cancer tissue samples, and the associations of polo-like kinase 1 expression with clinicopathological factors or prognosis of non-small cell lung cancer patients were evaluated. RNA interference was employed to inhibit endogenous polo-like kinase 1 expression and analyzed the effects of polo-like kinase 1 inhibition on the malignant phenotypes of non-small cell lung cancer cells including growth, apoptosis, radio- or chemoresistance. Also, the possible molecular mechanisms were also investigated. The levels of polo-like kinase 1 mRNA expression in non-small cell lung cancer cell lines or tissues were significantly higher than those in normal human bronchial epithelial cell line or corresponding non-tumor tissues. High polo-like kinase 1 expression was significantly correlated with advanced clinical stage, higher tumor classification and lymph node metastasis of non-small cell lung cancer patients (P=0.001, 0.004 and 0.001, respectively). Meanwhile, high polo-like kinase 1 protein expression was also an independent prognostic molecular marker for non-small cell lung cancer patients (hazard ratio: 2.113; 95% confidence interval: 1.326-3.557; P=0.017). Polo-like kinase 1 inhibition could significantly inhibit in vitro and in vivo proliferation, induce cell arrest of G(2)/M phase and apoptosis enhancement in non-small cell lung cancer cells, which might be activation of the p53 pathway and the Cdc25C/cdc2/cyclin B1 feedback loop. Further, inhibition of polo-like kinase 1 could enhance the sensitivity of non-small cell lung cancer cells to taxanes or irradiation. Thus, polo-like kinase 1 might be a prognostic marker and a chemo- or radiotherapeutic target for non-small cell lung cancer.
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