Wilms' tumor is a childhood kidney tumor that is a striking example of the way that cancer may arise through development gone awry. A proportion of these tumors develop as a result of the loss of function mutations in the Wilms' tumor suppressor gene, WT1. Inherited mutations in the WT1 gene can lead to childhood kidney cancer, severe gonadal dysplasia, and life-threatening hypertension. Knockouts show that the gene is essential for the early stages of kidney and gonad formation. These tissues are completely absent in null mice. The WT1 gene encodes numerous protein isoforms, all of which share four zinc fingers. There is a large body of evidence supporting the notion that WT1 is a transcription factor, particularly a transcriptional repressor. Recently, however, we obtained evidence that WT1 colocalizes and is physically associated with splice factors. What is more, one alternative splice isoform of WT1 containing three amino acids, Lys-Thr-Ser (KTS; inserted between zinc fingers 3 and 4) is preferentially associated with splice factors, whereas the other alternative splice version, lacking these three amino acids, preferentially associates with the transcriptional apparatus. Both genetic and evolutionary considerations suggest that these two different forms of the protein have different functions. We will discuss recent evidence to further implicate WT1 in splicing. Our results raise the possibility that regulation of splicing is a crucial factor in the development of the genitourinary system, and that tumors may arise through aberrant splicing. To pursue the regulation and function of WT1 in whole animals, we have been introducing the human gene and large flanking regions cloned in yeast artificial chromosomes directly into mice. These studies have allowed us to dissect the function of WT1 at late as well as at early stages in organogenesis and to identify new sites and surprising new potential functions for the gene.
Presented at the “General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Twentieth Annual Scientific Conference: Developmental Biology and Cancer,” June 9–10, 1998, Bethesda, MD. N. H. and V. v. H. are International Scholars of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. M. L. is supported by a Grant from the National Kidney Research Foundation. A. M. is supported by a Wellcome Trust International Fellowship. C. M. is an MRC Training Fellow.