Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a ligand-activated transcription factor involved in xenobiotic metabolism. Plexiform neurofibromas (PNFs) can transform into malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors (MPNSTs) that are resistant to existing therapies. These tumors are primarily composed of Schwann cells. In addition to neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) gene inactivation, further genetic lesions are required for malignant transformation. We have quantified the mRNA expression levels of AHR and its associated genes in 38 human samples. We report that AHR and the biosynthetic enzymes of its endogenous ligand are overexpressed in human biopsies of PNFs and MPNSTs. We also detect a strong nuclear AHR staining in MPNSTs. The inhibition of AHR by siRNA or antagonists, CH-223191 and trimethoxyflavone, induces apoptosis in human MPNST cells. Since AHR dysregulation is observed in these tumors, we investigate AHR involvement in Schwann cell physiology. Hence, we studied the role of AHR in myelin structure and myelin gene regulation in Ahr-/- mice during myelin development. AHR ablation leads to locomotion defects and provokes thinner myelin sheaths around the axons. We observe a dysregulation of myelin gene expression and myelin developmental markers in Ahr-/- mice. Interestingly, AHR does not directly bind to myelin gene promoters. The inhibition of AHR in vitro and in vivo increased β-catenin levels and stimulated the binding of β-catenin on myelin gene promoters. Taken together, our findings reveal an endogenous role of AHR in peripheral myelination and in peripheral nerve sheath tumors. Finally, we suggest a potential therapeutic approach by targeting AHR in nerve tumors.
Keywords: AHR; MPNST; myelin; nerve; neurofibroma.