Evaluation of active Rac1 levels in cancer cells: A case of misleading conclusions from immunofluorescence analysis

J Biol Chem. 2020 Oct 2;295(40):13698-13710. doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA120.013919. Epub 2020 Aug 14.


A large number of aggressive cancer cell lines display elevated levels of activated Rac1, a small GTPase widely implicated in cytoskeleton reorganization, cell motility, and metastatic dissemination. A commonly accepted methodological approach for detecting Rac1 activation in cancer cells involves the use of a conformation-sensitive antibody that detects the active (GTP-bound) Rac1 without interacting with the GDP-bound inactive form. This antibody has been extensively used in fixed cell immunofluorescence and immunohistochemistry. Taking advantage of prostate and pancreatic cancer cell models known to have high basal Rac1-GTP levels, here we have established that this antibody does not recognize Rac1 but rather detects the intermediate filament protein vimentin. Indeed, Rac1-null PC3 prostate cancer cells or cancer models with low levels of Rac1 activation still show a high signal with the anti-Rac1-GTP antibody, which is lost upon silencing of vimentin expression. Moreover, this antibody was unable to detect activated Rac1 in membrane ruffles induced by epidermal growth factor stimulation. These results have profound implications for the study of this key GTPase in cancer, particularly because a large number of cancer cell lines with characteristic mesenchymal features show simultaneous up-regulation of vimentin and high basal Rac1-GTP levels when measured biochemically. This misleading correlation can lead to assumptions about the validity of this antibody and inaccurate conclusions that may affect the development of appropriate therapeutic approaches for targeting the Rac1 pathway.

Keywords: Rac (Rac GTPase); Rac1; Rac1-GTP; cancer; cancer cells; epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT); imaging; immunofluorescence; small GTPase.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / genetics
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / pathology
  • Guanosine Triphosphate / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism*
  • PC-3 Cells
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • rac1 GTP-Binding Protein / genetics
  • rac1 GTP-Binding Protein / metabolism*


  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • RAC1 protein, human
  • Guanosine Triphosphate
  • rac1 GTP-Binding Protein