NRF2 activates a partial epithelial-mesenchymal transition and is maximally present in a hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal phenotype

Federico Bocci, Satyendra C. Tripathi, Samuel A. Vilchez Mercedes, Jason T. George, Julian P. Casabar, Pak Kin Wong, Samir M. Hanash, Herbert Levine, José N. Onuchic, Mohit Kumar Jolly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


The epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a key process implicated in cancer metastasis and therapy resistance. Recent studies have emphasized that cells can undergo partial EMT to attain a hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal (E/M) phenotype - a cornerstone of tumour aggressiveness and poor prognosis. These cells can have enhanced tumour-initiation potential as compared to purely epithelial or mesenchymal ones and can integrate the properties of cell-cell adhesion and motility that facilitates collective cell migration leading to clusters of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) - the prevalent mode of metastasis. Thus, identifying the molecular players that can enable cells to maintain a hybrid E/M phenotype is crucial to curb the metastatic load. Using an integrated computational-experimental approach, we show that the transcription factor NRF2 can prevent a complete EMT and instead stabilize a hybrid E/M phenotype. Knockdown of NRF2 in hybrid E/M non-small cell lung cancer cells H1975 and bladder cancer cells RT4 destabilized a hybrid E/M phenotype and compromised the ability to collectively migrate to close a wound in vitro. Notably, while NRF2 knockout simultaneously downregulated E-cadherin and ZEB-1, overexpression of NRF2 enriched for a hybrid E/M phenotype by simultaneously upregulating both E-cadherin and ZEB-1 in individual RT4 cells. Further, we predict that NRF2 is maximally expressed in hybrid E/M phenotype(s) and demonstrate that this biphasic dynamic arises from the interconnections among NRF2 and the EMT regulatory circuit. Finally, clinical records from multiple datasets suggest a correlation between a hybrid E/M phenotype, high levels of NRF2 and its targets and poor survival, further strengthening the emerging notion that hybrid E/M phenotype(s) may occupy the 'metastatic sweet spot'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-263
Number of pages13
JournalIntegrative biology : quantitative biosciences from nano to macro
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Medicine


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