Notch receptor-mediated intracellular events represent an ancient cell signaling system, and alterations in Notch expression are associated with various malignancies in which Notch may function as an oncogene or less commonly as a tumor suppressor. Notch signaling regulates cell fate decisions in the epidermis, including influencing stem cell dynamics and growth/differentiation control of cells in skin. Because of increasing evidence that the Notch signaling network is deregulated in human malignancies, Notch receptors have become attractive targets for selective killing of malignant cells. Compared with proliferating normal human melanocytes, melanoma cell lines are characterized by markedly enhanced levels of activated Notch-1 receptor. By using a small molecule gamma-secretase inhibitor (GSI) consisting of a tripeptide aldehyde, N-benzyloxycarbonyl-Leu-Leu-Nle-CHO, which can block processing and activation of all four different Notch receptors, we identified a specific apoptotic vulnerability in melanoma cells. GSI triggers apoptosis in melanoma cells, but only G2/M growth arrest in melanocytes without subsequent cell death. Moreover, GSI treatment induced a pro-apoptotic BH3-only protein, NOXA, in melanoma cells but not in normal melanocytes. The use of GSI to induce NOXA induction overcomes the apoptotic resistance of melanoma cells, which commonly express numerous cell survival proteins such as Mcl-1, Bcl-2, and survivin. Taken together, these results highlight the concept of synthetic lethality in which exposure to GSI, in combination with melanoma cells overexpressing activated Notch receptors, has lethal consequences, producing selective killing of melanoma cells, while sparing normal melanocytes. By identifying signaling pathways that contribute to the transformation of melanoma cells (e.g. Notch signaling), and anti-cancer agents that achieve tumor selectivity (e.g., GSI-induced NOXA), this experimental approach provides a useful framework for future therapeutic strategies in cutaneous oncology
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