Tag Archives: nuclear hormone receptor

The most interesting paper I’ve read this year

We all know what the estrogen receptor is and what it does.  It’s a large protein with 3  functional components.  Actually there are several estrogen receptor proteins, but I’m going to discuss just one — Estrogen Receptor alpha (ERalpha).

Here are the components:

a DNA binding domain (which binds to stretches of bases called the Estrogen Response Element (ERE))

a domain which binds estrogen changing the conformation of the third domain which is —

a domain which binds to RNA polymerase II activating it so it transcribes genes into mRNA.

Given the complexity of the hormonal cycles, it is far from surprising that the estrogen receptor controls the levels of 15% of all annotated protein coding genes < Cell vol. 145 pp. 622 – 634 ’11 >.

Given its importance in breast cancer, ERalpha has been intensively studied for years.

Now various regions of proteins have been assigned function, the SH2 domain binds to phosphotyrosine in proteins, SH3 binds to proline rich motifs, RNA Binding Domains (RBDs) bind to (what else?) RNAs.  Each of them has a characteristic sequence of amino acids allowing them to be picked out from DNA sequences.

Enter Cell vol. 184 pp. 5086 – 5088, 5215 – 5229 ’21 where ERalpha was found to bind to over 1,200 messenger RNAs (mRNAs).   It was not supposed to do that as it doesn’t contain any RBDs (well at least the RBDs we knew about — back to the drawing board on that one).  Even more interesting is the fact what most of the mRNAs bound by ERalpha aren’t from the genes whose ERE ERalpha binds.

Life is said to have originated in the RNA world.  We all know about the big 3 important RNAs for the cell, mRNA, ribosomal RNA and transfer RNA.  But just like the water, sewer, power and subway systems under Manhattan, there is another world down there in the cell which doesn’t much get talked about.  These areRNAs, whose primary (and possibly only) function is to interact with other RNAs.

The RNA world is still alive and well in all our cells.  It’s like DOS still out there under Windows, or Unix and its command line under the Apple interface. We studied proteins and DNA because they were (relatively) easy to study.

The papers go on to study how ERalpha RNA binding affects cancer (which it does).

But there are far larger questions the work brings forth.

l. ERalpha is just one nuclear hormone receptor and Estrogen is just one hormone.  Do the nuclear hormone receptor for other hormones also bind RNA? Have we been missing some of their actions inside cells and if so there are mechanisms to exploit?

2. Why stop at nuclear hormone receptors?  ERalpha binds RNA with no RNA binding  domains (RBDs) in sight.  Do other proteins also bind RNAs and if so what does it mean?

Fantastic stuff.  There is a whole world of possibilities opening before our eyes thanks to these papers.

It reminds me of what an anatomy professor told us when we were studying neuroanatomy — ‘unfortunately everything is connected to everything else’.

It’s probably too good to be true

SR9009 and SR9011 are drugs which selectively kill cancer cells by an entirely new mechanism.  They mess with DNA but don’t mutate it.  http://www.nature.com/articles/nature25170 [ Nature vol. 553 pp. 351 – 355 ’18 ] has the details.

First a bit of background.  How do the classic hormones (estrogen, androgen, thyroid, adrenal steroids) do what they do?  Clearly they change the expression of many many genes as any post-pubertal woman will attest.  They bind to proteins called nuclear hormone receptors, changing their shape so they can bind to DNA and change gene expression.   We have 48 of them in our genome.  For a long time we didn’t know what the natural ligands of many actually were.  These were called orphan nuclear hormone receptors.  I’m not sure how many orphans are left.


SR9009 and SR9011 bind to REV-ERBalpha and REV-ERBbeta which are nuclear hormone receptors. They are agonists (e.g. they cause SR9009 and 11 to do what they do)  Their natural ligand is heme (which isn’t a hormone) and they are involved in the circadian clock.   However they also act as repressors of processes involved in tumorigenesis, including metabolism, proliferation and inflammation.

So the authors threw the agonists at a variety of tumor cells (brain cancer, leukaemia, breast cancer, colon cancer and melanoma) and watched them commit suicide (apoptosis).  They had no effect on normal cells !

How do they work?  There is only speculation at this point.  It is known that SR90xx’s inhibit autophagy, something cancer cells depend on for nourishment.  Normal cells only use autophagy under starvation conditions. They also repress several lipogenic enzymes (fatty acid synthase etc. etc) and cancer cells are said to be dependent on de novo lipogenesis (if they want to proliferate, they got to make a lot of membrane).

It’s almost too good to be true.  Stay tuned.