Dysfunction of key miRNA pathways regulating basic cellular processes is a common driver of many cancers. However, the biological roles and/or clinical applications of such pathways in Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), a rare but lethal cutaneous neuroendocrine (NE) malignancy, have yet to be determined. Previous work has established that miR-375 is highly expressed in MCC tumors, but its biological role in MCC remains unknown. Herein, we show that elevated miR-375 expression is a specific feature of well-differentiated MCC cell lines that express NE markers. In contrast, miR-375 is strikingly down-regulated in highly aggressive, undifferentiated MCC cell lines. Enforced miR-375 expression in these cells induced NE differentiation, and opposed cancer cell viability, migration, invasion, and survival, pointing to tumor-suppressive roles for miR-375. Mechanistically, miR-375-driven phenotypes were caused by the direct post-transcriptional repression of multiple Notch pathway proteins (Notch2 and RBPJ) linked to cancer and regulation of cell fate. Thus, we detail a novel molecular axis linking tumor-suppressive miR-375 and Notch with NE differentiation and cancer cell behavior in MCC. Our findings identify miR-375 as a putative regulator of NE differentiation, provide insight into the cell of origin of MCC, and suggest that miR-375 silencing may promote aggressive cancer cell behavior through Notch disinhibition.
Copyright © 2016 American Society for Investigative Pathology. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.