Peto’s Paradox is the observation, due to Richard Peto, that at the species level, the incidence of cancer does not appear to correlate with the number of cells in an organism. For example, the incidence of cancer in humans is much higher than the incidence of cancer in whales. This is despite the fact that a whale has many more cells than a human. If the probability of carcinogenesis were constant across cells, one would expect whales to have a higher incidence of cancer than humans.
The same is true of elephants. In October 2015, two independent studies showed that elephants have 20 copies of a tumor suppressor gene TP53 in their genome, where humans and other mammals have only one, thus providing a possible solution to the paradox.
If the TP53 gene is damaged, tumor suppression is severely compromised. People who inherit only one functional copy of the TP53 gene will most likely develop tumors in early adulthood, a disorder known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome.
The TP53 gene can also be modified by mutagens (chemicals, radiation, or viruses), increasing the likelihood for uncontrolled cell division. More than 50 percent of human tumors contain a mutation or deletion of the TP53gene. Loss of p53 creates genomic instability that most often results in an aneuploidy phenotype.
Increasing the amount of p53 may seem a solution for treatment of tumors or prevention of their spreading. This, however, is not a usable method of treatment, since it can cause premature aging. Restoring endogenousnormal p53 function holds some promise. Research has shown that this restoration can lead to regression of certain cancer cells without damaging other cells in the process. The ways by which tumor regression occurs depends mainly on the tumor type. For example, restoration of endogenous p53 function in lymphomas may induce apoptosis, while cell growth may be reduced to normal levels. Thus, pharmacological reactivation of p53 presents itself as a viable cancer treatment option. The first commercial gene therapy, Gendicine, was approved in China in 2003 for the treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. It delivers a functional copy of the p53 gene using an engineered adenovirus.
Certain pathogens can also affect the p53 protein that the TP53 gene expresses. One such example, human papillomavirus(HPV), encodes a protein, E6, which binds to the p53 protein and inactivates it. This mechanism, in synergy with the inactivation of the cell cycle regulator pRb by the HPV protein E7, allows for repeated cell division manifested clinically as warts. Certain HPV types, in particular types 16 and 18, can also lead to progression from a benign wart to low or high-grade cervical dysplasia, which are reversible forms of precancerous lesions. Persistent infection of the cervix over the years can cause irreversible changes leading to carcinoma in situ and eventually invasive cervical cancer. This results from the effects of HPV genes, particularly those encoding E6 and E7, which are the two viral oncoproteins that are preferentially retained and expressed in cervical cancers by integration of the viral DNA into the host genome.
The p53 protein is continually produced and degraded in cells of healthy people, resulting in damped oscillation. The degradation of the p53 protein is associated with binding of MDM2. In a negative feedback loop, MDM2 itself is induced by the p53 protein. Mutant p53 proteins often fail to induce MDM2, causing p53 to accumulate at very high levels. Moreover, the mutant p53 protein itself can inhibit normal p53 protein levels. In some cases, single missense mutations in p53 have been shown to disrupt p53 stability and function.
p53 becomes activated in response to myriad stressors, including but not limited to DNA damage (induced by either UV, IR, or chemical agents such as hydrogen peroxide), oxidative stress, osmotic shock, ribonucleotide depletion, and deregulated oncogene expression. This activation is marked by two major events. First, the half-life of the p53 protein is increased drastically, leading to a quick accumulation of p53 in stressed cells. Second, a conformational change forces p53 to be activated as a transcription regulator in these cells. The critical event leading to the activation of p53 is the phosphorylation of its N-terminal domain. The N-terminal transcriptional activation domain contains a large number of phosphorylation sites and can be considered as the primary target for protein kinases transducing stress signals.
The protein kinases that are known to target this transcriptional activation domain of p53 can be roughly divided into two groups.
A first group of protein kinases belongs to the MAPK family (JNK1-3, ERK1-2, p38 MAPK), which is known to respond to several types of stress, such as membrane damage, oxidative stress, osmotic shock, heat shock, etc.
A second group of protein kinases (ATR, ATM, CHK1 and CHK2, DNA-PK, CAK, TP53RK) is implicated in the genome integrity checkpoint, a molecular cascade that detects and responds to several forms of DNA damage caused by genotoxic stress.
Oncogenes also stimulate p53 activation, mediated by the protein p14ARF.
In unstressed cells, p53 levels are kept low through a continuous degradation of p53. A protein called Mdm2 (also called HDM2 in humans), binds to p53, preventing its action and transports it from the nucleus to the cytosol. Also Mdm2 acts as ubiquitin ligase and covalently attaches ubiquitin to p53 and thus marks p53 for degradation by the proteasome. However, ubiquitylation of p53 is reversible.
The novel molecule MI-63 binds to MDM2 making the action of p53 again possible in situations were p53’s function has become inhibited.
A ubiquitin specific protease, USP7 (or HAUSP), can cleave ubiquitin off p53, thereby protecting it from proteasome-dependent degradation via the ubiquitin ligase pathway. This is one means by which p53 is stabilized in response to oncogenic insults. USP42 has also been shown to deubiquitinate p53 and may be required for the ability of p53 to respond to stress.
Recent research has shown that HAUSP is mainly localized in the nucleus, though a fraction of it can be found in the cytoplasm and mitochondria. Overexpression of HAUSP results in p53 stabilization. However, depletion of HAUSP does not result to a decrease in p53 levels but rather increases p53 levels due to the fact that HAUSP binds and deubiquitinates Mdm2. It has been shown that HAUSP is a better binding partner to Mdm2 than p53 in unstressed cells.
USP10 however has been shown to be located in the cytoplasm in unstressed cells and deubiquitinates cyptoplasmic p53, reversing Mdm2 ubiquitination. Following DNA damage, USP10 translocates to the nucleus and contributes to p53 stability. Also USP10 does not interact with Mdm2.
Phosphorylation of the N-terminal end of p53 by the above-mentioned protein kinases disrupts Mdm2-binding. Other proteins, such as Pin1, are then recruited to p53 and induce a conformational change in p53, which prevents Mdm2-binding even more. Phosphorylation also allows for binding of transcriptional coactivators, like p300 and PCAF, which then acetylate the carboxy-terminal end of p53, exposing the DNA binding domain of p53, allowing it to activate or repress specific genes. Deacetylase enzymes, such as Sirt1 and Sirt7, can deacetylate p53, leading to an inhibition of apoptosis. Some oncogenes can also stimulate the transcription of proteins that bind to MDM2 and inhibit its activity.