Melanotransferrin or melanoma tumour antigen p97 (MTf) is a transferrin homologue that is found predominantly bound to the cell membrane via a glycosylphosphatidylinositol anchor. The molecule is a member of the transferrin super-family that binds iron through a single high affinity iron(III)-binding site. Melanotransferrin was originally identified at high levels in melanoma cells and other tumours, but at lower levels in normal tissues. Since its discovery, the function of MTf has remained intriguing, particularly regarding its role in cancer cell iron transport. In fact, considering the crucial role of iron in many metabolic pathways e.g., DNA and haem synthesis, it is important to understand the function of melanotransferrin in the transport of this vital nutrient. Melanotransferrin has also been implicated in diverse physiological processes, such as plasminogen activation, angiogenesis, cell migration and eosinophil differentiation. Despite these previous findings, the exact biological and molecular function(s) of MTf remain elusive. Therefore, it was important to investigate the function of this molecule in order to clarify its role in biology.
To define the roles of MTf, six models were developed during this investigation. These included: the first MTf knockout (MTf -/-) mouse; down-regulation of MTf expression by post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS) in SK-Mel-28 and SK-Mel-2 melanoma cells; hyper-expression of MTf expression in SK-N-MC neuroepithelioma cells and LMTK- fibroblasts cells; and a MTf transgenic mouse (MTf Tg) with MTf hyperexpression.
The MTf -/- mouse was generated through targeted disruption of the MTf gene. These animals were viable, fertile and developed normally, with no morphological or histological abnormalities. Assessment of Fe indices, tissue Fe levels, haematology and serum chemistry parameters demonstrated no differences between MTf -/- and wild-type (MTf +/+) littermates, suggesting MTf was not essential for Fe metabolism. However, microarray analysis showed differential expression of molecules involved in proliferation such as myocyte enhancer factor 2a (Mef2a), transcription factor 4 (Tcf4), glutaminase (Gls) and apolipoprotein d (Apod) in MTf -/- mice compared with MTf +/+ littermates.
Considering the role of MTf in melanoma cells, PTGS was used to down-regulate MTf mRNA and protein levels by >90% and >80%, respectively. This resulted in inhibition of cellular proliferation and migration. As found in MTf -/- mice, melanoma cells with suppressed MTf expression demonstrated up-regulation of MEF2A and TCF4 in comparison with parental cells. Furthermore, injection of melanoma cells with decreased MTf expression into nude mice resulted in a marked reduction of tumour initiation and growth. This strongly suggested a role for MTf in proliferation and tumourigenesis.
To further understand the function of MTf, a whole-genome microarray analysis was utilised to examine the gene expression profile of five models of modulated MTf expression. These included two stably transfected MTf hyper-expression models (i.e., SK-N-MC neuroepithelioma and LMTK- fibroblasts) and one cell type with downregulated MTf expression (i.e., SK-Mel-28 melanoma). These findings were then compared with alterations in gene expression identified using the MTf -/- mouse. In addition, the changes identified from the microarray data were also assessed in another model of MTf down-regulation in SK-Mel-2 melanoma cells. In the cell line models, MTf hyper-expression led to increased proliferation, while MTf down-regulation resulted in decreased proliferation. Across all five models of MTf down- and upregulation, three genes were identified as commonly modulated by MTf. These included ATP-binding cassette sub-family B member 5 (Abcb5), whose change in expression mirrored MTf down- or up-regulation. In addition, thiamine triphosphatase (Thtpa) and Tcf4 were inversely expressed relative to MTf levels across all five models. The products of these three genes are involved in membrane transport, thiamine phosphorylation and proliferation/survival, respectively. Hence, this study identifies novel molecular targets directly or indirectly regulated by MTf and the potential pathways involved in its function, including modulation of proliferation.
To further understand the function of MTf, transgenic mice bearing the MTf gene under the control of the human ubiquitin-c promoter were generated and characterised. In MTf Tg mice, MTf mRNA and protein levels were hyper-expressed in a variety of tissues compared with control mice. Similar to the MTf -/- mice, these animals exhibited no gross morphological, histological, nor Fe status changes when compared with wild-type littermates. The MTf Tg mice were also born in accordance with classical Mendelian ratios. However, haematological data suggested that hyper-expression of MTf leads to a mild, but significant decrease in erythrocyte count.
In conclusion, the investigations described within this thesis clearly demonstrate no essential role for MTf in Fe metabolism both in vitro and in vivo. In addition, this study generates novel in vitro and in vivo models for further investigating MTf function. Significantly, the work presented has identified novel role(s) for MTf in cell proliferation, migration and melanoma tumourigenesis.