Cell-to-cell heterogeneity of EWSR1-FLI1 activity determines proliferation/migration choices in Ewing sarcoma cells

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Ewing sarcoma is characterized by the expression of the chimeric EWSR1-FLI1 transcription factor. Proteomic analyses indicate that the decrease of EWSR1-FLI1 expression leads to major changes in effectors of the dynamics of the actin cytoskeleton and the adhesion processes with a shift from cell-to-cell to cell-matrix adhesion. These changes are associated with a dramatic increase of in vivo cell migration and invasion potential. Importantly, EWSR1-FLI1 expression, evaluated by single-cell RT-ddPCR/immunofluorescence analyses, and activity, assessed by expression of EWSR1-FLI1 downstream targets, are heterogeneous in cell lines and in tumours and can fluctuate along time in a fully reversible process between EWSR1-FLI1high states, characterized by highly active cell proliferation, and EWSR1-FLI1low states where cells have a strong propensity to migrate, invade and metastasize. This new model of phenotypic plasticity proposes that the dynamic fluctuation of the expression level of a dominant oncogene is an intrinsic characteristic of its oncogenic potential.

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