Caspase-9 is involved in the intrinsic apoptotic pathway and suggested to play a role as a tumor suppressor. Little is known about the mechanisms governing caspase-9 expression, but post-transcriptional pre-mRNA processing generates 2 splice variants from the caspase-9 gene, pro-apoptotic caspase-9a and anti-apoptotic caspase-9b. Here we demonstrate that the ratio of caspase-9 splice variants is dysregulated in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) tumors. Mechanistic analysis revealed that an exonic splicing silencer (ESS) regulated caspase-9 pre-mRNA processing in NSCLC cells. Heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein L (hnRNP L) interacted with this ESS, and downregulation of hnRNP L expression induced an increase in the caspase-9a/9b ratio. Although expression of hnRNP L lowered the caspase-9a/9b ratio in NSCLC cells, expression of hnRNP L produced the opposite effect in non-transformed cells, suggesting a post-translational modification specific for NSCLC cells. Indeed, Ser 52 was identified as a critical modification regulating the caspase-9a/9b ratio. Importantly, in a mouse xenograft model, downregulation of hnRNP L in NSCLC cells induced a complete loss of tumorigenic capacity that was due to the changes in caspase-9 pre-mRNA processing. This study therefore identifies a cancer-specific mechanism of hnRNP L phosphorylation and subsequent lowering of the caspase-9a/9b ratio, which is required for the tumorigenic capacity of NSCLC cells.
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