ATAD3A mediates activation of RAS-independent mitochondrial ERK1/2 signaling, favoring head and neck cancer development

Liwei Lang, Reid Loveless, Juan Dou, Tiffany Lam, Alex Chen, Fang Wang, Li Sun, Jakeline Juarez, Zhaohui Steve Qin, Nabil F. Saba, Chloe Shay, Yong Teng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Background: Targeting mitochondrial oncoproteins presents a new concept in the development of effective cancer therapeutics. ATAD3A is a nuclear-encoded mitochondrial enzyme contributing to mitochondrial dynamics, cholesterol metabolism, and signal transduction. However, its impact and underlying regulatory mechanisms in cancers remain ill-defined. Methods: We used head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) as a research platform and achieved gene depletion by lentiviral shRNA and CRISPR/Cas9. Molecular alterations were examined by RNA-sequencing, phospho-kinase profiling, Western blotting, RT-qPCR, immunohistochemistry, and immunoprecipitation. Cancer cell growth was assessed by MTT, colony formation, soft agar, and 3D cultures. The therapeutic efficacy in tumor development was evaluated in orthotopic tongue tumor NSG mice. Results: ATAD3A is highly expressed in HNSCC tissues and cell lines. Loss of ATAD3A expression suppresses HNSCC cell growth and elicits tumor regression in orthotopic tumor-bearing mice, whereas gain of ATAD3A expression produces the opposite effects. From a mechanistic perspective, the tumor suppression induced by the overexpression of the Walker A dead mutant of ATAD3A (K358) produces a potent dominant-negative effect due to defective ATP-binding. Moreover, ATAD3A binds to ERK1/2 in the mitochondria of HNSCC cells in the presence of VDAC1, and this interaction is essential for the activation of mitochondrial ERK1/2 signaling. Most importantly, the ATAD3A-ERK1/2 signaling axis drives HNSCC development in a RAS-independent fashion and, thus, tumor suppression is more effectively achieved when ATAD3A knockout is combined with RAS inhibitor treatment. Conclusions: These findings highlight the novel function of ATAD3A in regulating mitochondrial ERK1/2 activation that favors HNSCC development. Combined targeting of ATAD3A and RAS signaling may potentiate anticancer activity for HNSCC therapeutics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number43
JournalJournal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • ATAD3A
  • Mitochondrial ERK1/2
  • RAS
  • VDAC1
  • WA dead mutant

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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