Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Canonical Notch signalling is inactive in urothelial carcinoma

Annemarie Greife1, Silvia Jankowiak2, Jochen Steinbring1, Parvaneh Nikpour3, Günter Niegisch1, Michèle J Hoffmann1 and Wolfgang A Schulz1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Urology, Medical Faculty, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany

2 Institute of Pathology, Medical Faculty, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany

3 Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Medicine, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:628  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-628

Published: 29 August 2014



Notch signalling regulates cell fate in most tissues, promoting precursor cell proliferation in some, but differentiation in others. Accordingly, downregulation or overactivity variously contributes to cancer development. So far, little is known about Notch pathway activity and function in the normal urothelium and in urothelial carcinoma (UC). We have therefore investigated expression of Notch pathway components in UC tissues and cell lines and studied the function of one receptor, NOTCH1, in detail.


Expression of canonical Notch pathway components were studied in UC and normal bladder tissues by immunohistochemistry and quantitative RT-PCR and in UC cell lines and normal cultured urothelial cells by qRT-PCR, immunocytochemistry and Western blotting. Pathway activity was measured by reporter gene assays. Its influence on cell proliferation was investigated by γ-secretase inhibition. Effects of NOTCH1 restoration were followed by measuring cell cycle distribution, proliferation, clonogenicity and nuclear morphology.


NOTCH1 and its ligand, DLL1, were expressed at plasma membranes and in the cytoplasm of cells in the upper normal urothelium layer, but became downregulated in UC tissues, especially in high-stage tumours. In addition, the proteins were often delocalized intracellularly. According differences were observed in UC cell lines compared to normal urothelial cells. Canonical Notch pathway activity in reporter assays was repressed in UC cell lines compared to normal cells and a mammary carcinoma cell line, but was induced by transfected NOTCH1. Inhibitors of Notch signalling acting at the γ-secretase step did not affect UC cell proliferation at concentrations efficacious against a cell line with known Notch activity. Surprisingly, overexpression of NOTCH1 into UC cell lines did not significantly affect short-term cell proliferation, but induced nuclear abnormalities and diminished clonogenicity.


Our data indicate that canonical Notch signalling is suppressed in urothelial carcinoma mainly through downregulation of NOTCH1. These findings can be explained by proposing that canonical Notch signalling may promote differentiation in the urothelium, like in many squamous epithelia, and its suppression may therefore be advantageous for tumour progression. As an important corollary, inhibition of canonical Notch signalling is unlikely to be efficacious and might be counter-productive in the treatment of urothelial carcinoma.

Urothelial carcinoma; Notch pathway; γ-secretase inhibitors; Bladder cancer; NOTCH1