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Caspase-8 mutations associated with head and neck cancer differentially retain functional properties related to TRAIL-induced apoptosis and cytokine induction


The cysteine protease, caspase-8, undergoes dimerization, processing, and activation following stimulation of cells with death ligands such as TRAIL, and mediates TRAIL induction of the extrinsic apoptosis pathway. In addition, caspase-8 mediates TRAIL-induced activation of NF-κB and upregulation of immunosuppressive chemokines/cytokines, via a mechanism independent of caspase-8 catalytic activity. The gene encoding procaspase-8 is mutated in 10% of human head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs). Despite a paucity of experimental evidence, HNSCC-associated caspase-8 mutations are commonly assumed to be loss of function. To investigate their functional properties and phenotypic effects, 18 HNSCC-associated caspase-8 mutants were expressed in doxycycline-inducible fashion in cell line models wherein the endogenous wild-type caspase-8 was deleted. We observed that 5/8 mutants in the amino-terminal prodomain, but 0/10 mutants in the carboxyl-terminal catalytic region, retained an ability to mediate TRAIL-induced apoptosis. Caspase-8 proteins with mutations in the prodomain were defective in dimerization, whereas all ten of the catalytic region mutants efficiently dimerized, revealing an inverse relationship between dimerization and apoptosis induction for the mutant proteins. Roughly half (3/8) of the prodomain mutants and 9/10 of the catalytic region mutants retained the ability to mediate TRAIL induction of immunosuppressive CXCL1, IL-6, or IL-8. Doxycycline-induced expression of wild-type caspase-8 or a representative mutant led to an increased percentage of T and NKT cells in syngeneic HNSCC xenograft tumors. These findings demonstrate that HNSCC-associated caspase-8 mutants retain properties that may influence TRAIL-mediated apoptosis and cytokine induction, as well as the composition of the tumor microenvironment.

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