EML4-ALK is an oncogenic fusion present in ∼5% non-small cell lung cancers. However, alternative breakpoints in the EML4 gene lead to distinct variants with different patient outcomes. Here, we show in cell models that EML4-ALK variant 3 (V3), which is linked to accelerated metastatic spread, causes microtubule stabilization, formation of extended cytoplasmic protrusions and increased cell migration. It also recruits the NEK9 and NEK7 kinase to microtubules via the N-terminal EML4 microtubule-binding region. Overexpression of wild-type EML4 as well as constitutive activation of NEK9 also perturb cell morphology and accelerate migration in a microtubule-dependent manner that requires the downstream kinase NEK7 but not ALK activity. Strikingly, elevated NEK9 expression is associated with reduced progression-free survival in EML4-ALK patients. Hence, we propose that EML4-ALK V3 promotes microtubule stabilization through NEK9 and NEK7 leading to increased cell migration. This represents a novel actionable pathway that could drive metastatic disease progression in EML4-ALK lung cancer.
© 2020. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.