The products of the tumor suppressor genes are considered to function as specific inhibitors of tumor cell growth. In this communication, we present evidence to show that these proteins inhibit tumor cell proliferation by participating in the activation of tumor cell differentiation. The ML-1 human myeloblastic leukemia cells used in this study proliferate when treated with insulin-like growth factor I and transferrin but differentiate to monocytes when exposed to tumor necrosis factor α or transforming growth factor β1, or to macrophage-like cells when treated with both these cytokines. Initiation of proliferation but not of differentiation was followed by a 20- to 25-fold increase in the nuclear level of the DNA polymerase-associated processivity factor PCNA and of the proliferation-specific transcription factor E2F1. In contrast, induction of differentiation but not of proliferation was followed by a 25- to 30-fold increase in the nuclear level of the tumor suppressor proteins p53 (wild type), pRb, and p130/Rb2 and of the p53-dependent cyclin kinase inhibitor p21/Cip1. p53 and p21/Cip1, respectively, inhibit the expression and activation of PCNA, whereas p130 and pRb, respectively, inhibit the expression and activation of E2F1. As a result, G1-S-associated DNA and mRNA synthesis is inhibited, growth uncoupled from differentiation, and maturation enabled to proceed. Where this function of the tumor suppressor proteins is impaired, the capacity for differentiation is lost, which leads to the sustained proliferation that is characteristic of the cancer cell.

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This study was aided by Grant CA-36241 from the National Cancer Institute, Department of Health and Human Services.

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