ECT2 is an activator of RHO GTPases that is essential for cytokinesis. In addition, ECT2 was identified as an oncoprotein when expressed ectopically in NIH/3T3 fibroblasts. However, oncogenic activation of ECT2 resulted from N-terminal truncation, and such truncated ECT2 proteins have not been found in patients with cancer. In this study, we observed elevated expression of full-length ECT2 protein in preneoplastic colon adenomas, driven by increased ECT2 mRNA abundance and associated with APC tumor-suppressor loss. Elevated ECT2 levels were detected in the cytoplasm and nucleus of colorectal cancer tissue, suggesting cytoplasmic mislocalization as one mechanism of early oncogenic ECT2 activation. Importantly, elevated nuclear ECT2 correlated with poorly differentiated tumors, and a low cytoplasmic:nuclear ratio of ECT2 protein correlated with poor patient survival, suggesting that nuclear and cytoplasmic ECT2 play distinct roles in colorectal cancer. Depletion of ECT2 reduced anchorage-independent cancer cell growth and invasion independent of its function in cytokinesis, and loss of Ect2 extended survival in a KrasG12DApc-null colon cancer mouse model. Expression of ECT2 variants with impaired nuclear localization or guanine nucleotide exchange catalytic activity failed to restore cancer cell growth or invasion, indicating that active, nuclear ECT2 is required to support tumor progression. Nuclear ECT2 promoted ribosomal DNA transcription and ribosome biogenesis in colorectal cancer. These results support a driver role for both cytoplasmic and nuclear ECT2 overexpression in colorectal cancer and emphasize the critical role of precise subcellular localization in dictating ECT2 function in neoplastic cells.

Significance:

ECT2 overexpression and mislocalization support its role as a driver in colon cancer that is independent from its function in normal cell cytokinesis.

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