Inactivating mutations in PTEN are prevalent in melanoma and are thought to support tumor development by hyperactivating the AKT/mTOR pathway. Conversely, activating mutations in AKT are relatively rare in melanoma, and therapies targeting AKT or mTOR have shown disappointing outcomes in preclinical models and clinical trials of melanoma. This has led to the speculation that PTEN suppresses melanoma by opposing AKT-independent pathways, potentially through noncanonical functions beyond its lipid phosphatase activity. In this study, we examined the mechanisms of PTEN-mediated suppression of melanoma formation through the restoration of various PTEN functions in PTEN-deficient cells or mouse models. PTEN lipid phosphatase activity predominantly inhibited melanoma cell proliferation, invasion, and tumor growth, with minimal contribution from its protein phosphatase and scaffold functions. A drug screen underscored the exquisite dependence of PTEN-deficient melanoma cells on the AKT/mTOR pathway. Furthermore, activation of AKT alone was sufficient to counteract several aspects of PTEN-mediated melanoma suppression, particularly invasion and the growth of allograft tumors. Phosphoproteomics analysis of the lipid phosphatase activity of PTEN validated its potent inhibition of AKT and many of its known targets, while also identifying the AP-1 transcription factor FRA1 as a downstream effector. The restoration of PTEN dampened FRA1 translation by inhibiting AKT/mTOR signaling, and FRA1 overexpression negated aspects of PTEN-mediated melanoma suppression akin to AKT. This study supports AKT as the key mediator of PTEN inactivation in melanoma and identifies an AKT/mTOR/FRA1 axis as a driver of melanomagenesis.


PTEN suppresses melanoma predominantly through its lipid phosphatase function, which when lost, elevates FRA1 levels through AKT/mTOR signaling to promote several aspects of melanomagenesis.

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