Retinoblastoma is a childhood cancer of the developing retina that begins in utero and is diagnosed in the first years of life. Biallelic RB1 gene inactivation is the initiating genetic lesion in retinoblastoma. The p53 gene is intact in human retinoblastoma but the pathway is believed to be suppressed by increased expression of MDM4 (MDMX) and MDM2. Here we quantify the expression of MDM4 and MDM2 mRNA and protein in human fetal retinae, primary retinoblastomas, retinoblastoma cell lines and several independent orthotopic retinoblastoma xenografts. We found that MDM4 is the major p53 antagonist expressed in retinoblastoma and in the developing human retina. We also discovered that MDM4 protein steady state levels are much higher in retinoblastoma than in human fetal retinae. This increase would not have been predicted based on the mRNA levels. We explored several possible post-transcriptional mechanisms that may contribute to the elevated levels of MDM4 protein. A proportion of MDM4 transcripts are alternatively spliced to produce protein products that are reported to be more stable and oncogenic. We also discovered that a microRNA predicted to target MDM4 (miR191) was downregulated in retinoblastoma relative to human fetal retinae and a subset of samples had somatic mutations that eliminated the miR-191 binding site in the MDM4 mRNA. Taken together, these data suggest that post-transcriptional mechanisms may contribute to stabilization of the MDM4 protein in retinoblastoma.
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