Nuclear ERK: Mechanism of Translocation, Substrates, and Role in Cancer

Int J Mol Sci. 2019 Mar 8;20(5):1194. doi: 10.3390/ijms20051194.


The extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2 (ERK) are central signaling components that regulate stimulated cellular processes such as proliferation and differentiation. When dysregulated, these kinases participate in the induction and maintenance of various pathologies, primarily cancer. While ERK is localized in the cytoplasm of resting cells, many of its substrates are nuclear, and indeed, extracellular stimulation induces a rapid and robust nuclear translocation of ERK. Similarly to other signaling components that shuttle to the nucleus upon stimulation, ERK does not use the canonical importinmechanism of nuclear translocation. Rather, it has its own unique nuclear translocation signal (NTS) that interacts with importin7 to allow stimulated shuttling via the nuclear pores. Prevention of the nuclear translocation inhibits proliferation of B-Raf- and N/K-Ras-transformed cancers. This effect is distinct from the one achieved by catalytic Raf and MEK inhibitors used clinically, as cells treated with the translocation inhibitors develop resistance much more slowly. In this review, we describe the mechanism of ERK translocation, present all its nuclear substrates, discuss its role in cancer and compare its translocation to the translocation of other signaling components. We also present proof of principle data for the use of nuclear ERK translocation as an anti-cancer target. It is likely that the prevention of nuclear ERK translocation will eventually serve as a way to combat Ras and Raf transformed cancers with less side-effects than the currently used drugs.

Keywords: Beta-like importins; mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK); negative feedback loop; nuclear substrates; nuclear translocation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Active Transport, Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism*
  • Cell Nucleus / pathology
  • Drug Discovery / methods
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System* / drug effects
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases