Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) plays a role in tumour metastases; however, the genes that activate HIF-1 and subsequently promote metastases have yet to be identified. Here we show that Ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase-L1 (UCHL1) abrogates the von Hippel–Lindau-mediated ubiquitination of HIF-1α, the regulatory subunit of HIF-1, and consequently promotes metastasis. The aberrant overexpression of UCHL1 facilitates distant tumour metastases in a HIF-1-dependent manner in murine models of pulmonary metastasis. Meanwhile, blockade of the UCHL1–HIF-1 axis suppresses the formation of metastatic tumours. The expression levels of UCHL1 correlate with those of HIF-1α and are strongly associated with the poor prognosis of breast and lung cancer patients. These results indicate that UCHL1 promotes metastases as a deubiquitinating enzyme for HIF-1α, which justifies exploiting it as a prognostic marker and therapeutic target of cancers
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