Zinc-Dependent Regulation of ZEB1 and YAP1 Coactivation Promotes Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition Plasticity and Metastasis in Pancreatic Cancer

Gastroenterology. 2021 Apr;160(5):1771-1783.e1. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2020.12.077. Epub 2021 Jan 6.


Background: Pancreatic cancer is characterized by extensive metastasis. Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) plasticity plays a critical role in tumor progression and metastasis by maintaining the transition between EMT and mesenchymal-epithelial transition states. Our aim is to understand the molecular events regulating metastasis and EMT plasticity in pancreatic cancer.

Methods: The interactions between a cancer-promoting zinc transporter ZIP4, a zinc-dependent EMT transcriptional factor ZEB1, a coactivator YAP1, and integrin α3 (ITGA3) were examined in human pancreatic cancer cells, clinical specimens, spontaneous mouse models (KPC and KPCZ) and orthotopic xenografts, and 3-dimensional spheroid and organoid models. Correlations between ZIP4, miR-373, and its downstream targets were assessed by RNA in situ hybridization and immunohistochemical staining. The transcriptional regulation of ZEB1, YAP1, and ITGA3 by ZIP4 was determined by chromatin immunoprecipitation, co-immunoprecipitation, and luciferase reporter assays.

Results: The Hippo pathway effector YAP1 is a potent transcriptional coactivator and forms a complex with ZEB1 to activate ITGA3 transcription through the YAP1/transcriptional enhanced associate domain (TEAD) binding sites in human pancreatic cancer cells and KPC-derived mouse cells. ZIP4 upregulated YAP1 expression via activation of miR-373 and inhibition of the YAP1 repressor large tumor suppressor 2 kinase (LATS2). Furthermore, upregulation of ZIP4 promoted EMT plasticity, cell adhesion, spheroid formation, and organogenesis both in human pancreatic cancer cells, 3-dimensional spheroid model, xenograft model, and spontaneous mouse models (KPC and KPCZ) through ZEB1/YAP1-ITGA3 signaling axis.

Conclusion: We demonstrated that ZIP4 activates ZEB1 and YAP1 through distinct mechanisms. The ZIP4-miR-373-LATS2-ZEB1/YAP1-ITGA3 signaling axis has a significant impact on pancreatic cancer metastasis and EMT plasticity.

Keywords: Posttranscriptional Regulation; Transcription Coactivation; Zinc Homeostasis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / genetics
  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Cation Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Cation Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement*
  • Cell Plasticity*
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Integrin alpha3 / genetics
  • Integrin alpha3 / metabolism
  • Mice
  • MicroRNAs / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / metabolism
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Spheroids, Cellular
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism*
  • Zinc / metabolism*
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1 / genetics
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1 / metabolism*


  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • Cation Transport Proteins
  • ITGA3 protein, human
  • Integrin alpha3
  • Itga3 protein, mouse
  • MIRN373 microRNA, human
  • MIRN373 microRNA, mouse
  • MicroRNAs
  • SLC39A4 protein, human
  • Slc39a4 protein, mouse
  • Transcription Factors
  • YAP1 protein, human
  • Yap1 protein, mouse
  • ZEB1 protein, human
  • ZEB1 protein, mouse
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1
  • Zinc