ST6Gal-I sialyltransferase promotes tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-mediated cancer cell survival via sialylation of the TNF receptor 1 (TNFR1) death receptor

J Biol Chem. 2018 Feb 2;293(5):1610-1622. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M117.801480. Epub 2017 Dec 12.


Activation of the tumor necrosis factor receptor 1 (TNFR1) death receptor by TNF induces either cell survival or cell death. However, the mechanisms mediating these distinct outcomes remain poorly understood. In this study, we report that the ST6Gal-I sialyltransferase, an enzyme up-regulated in numerous cancers, sialylates TNFR1 and thereby protects tumor cells from TNF-induced apoptosis. Using pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells with ST6Gal-I knockdown or overexpression, we determined that α2-6 sialylation of TNFR1 had no effect on early TNF-induced signaling events, including the rapid activation of NF-κB, c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), and Akt (occurring within 15 min). However, upon extended TNF treatment (6-24 h), cells with high ST6Gal-I levels exhibited resistance to TNF-induced apoptosis, as indicated by morphological evidence of cell death and decreased activation of caspases 8 and 3. Correspondingly, at these later time points, high ST6Gal-I expressers displayed sustained activation of the survival molecules Akt and NF-κB. Additionally, extended TNF treatment resulted in the selective enrichment of clonal variants with high ST6Gal-I expression, further substantiating a role for ST6Gal-I in cell survival. Given that TNFR1 internalization is known to be essential for apoptosis induction, whereas survival signaling is initiated by TNFR1 at the plasma membrane, we examined TNFR1 localization. The α2-6 sialylation of TNFR1 was found to inhibit TNF-induced TNFR1 internalization. Thus, by restraining TNFR1 at the cell surface via sialylation, ST6Gal-I acts as a functional switch to divert signaling toward survival. These collective findings point to a novel glycosylation-dependent mechanism that regulates the cellular response to TNF and may promote cancer cell survival within TNF-rich tumor microenvironments.

Keywords: TNFR1; apoptosis; cell signaling; death receptor; glycosylation; tumor cell biology; tumor necrosis factor (TNF); β-galactoside α2-6 sialyltransferase 1 (ST6Gal-I).

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, CD / genetics
  • Antigens, CD / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Humans
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / genetics
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid / metabolism*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational*
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor, Type I / genetics
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor, Type I / metabolism*
  • Sialyltransferases / genetics
  • Sialyltransferases / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / genetics
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism*


  • Antigens, CD
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor, Type I
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Sialyltransferases
  • ST6GAL1 protein, human
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid