Most normal mammalian cells have a finite lifespan, thought to constitute a protective mechanism against unlimited proliferation. This phenomenon, called senescence, is driven by telomere attrition, which triggers the induction of tumour suppressors including p16INK4a (ref. 5). In cultured cells, senescence can be elicited prematurely by oncogenes; however, whether such oncogene-induced senescence represents a physiological process has long been debated. Human naevi (moles) are benign tumours of melanocytes that frequently harbour oncogenic mutations (predominantly V600E, where valine is substituted for glutamic acid) in BRAF, a protein kinase and downstream effector of Ras. Nonetheless, naevi typically remain in a growth-arrested state for decades and only rarely progress into malignancy (melanoma). This raises the question of whether naevi undergo BRAFV600E-induced senescence. Here we show that sustained BRAFV600E expression in human melanocytes induces cell cycle arrest, which is accompanied by the induction of both p16INK4a and senescence-associated acidic β-galactosidase (SA-β-Gal) activity, a commonly used senescence marker. Validating these results in vivo, congenital naevi are invariably positive for SA-β-Gal, demonstrating the presence of this classical senescence-associated marker in a largely growth-arrested, neoplastic human lesion. In growth-arrested melanocytes, both in vitro and in situ, we observed a marked mosaic induction of p16INK4a, suggesting that factors other than p16INK4a contribute to protection against BRAFV600E-driven proliferation. Naevi do not appear to suffer from telomere attrition, arguing in favour of an active oncogene-driven senescence process, rather than a loss of replicative potential. Thus, both in vitro and in vivo, BRAFV600E-expressing melanocytes display classical hallmarks of senescence, suggesting that oncogene-induced senescence represents a genuine protective physiological process.
ASJC Scopus subject areas