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The autophagy associated gene, ULK1, promotes tolerance to chronic and acute hypoxia.

Schaaf MBCojocari Dan Keulers TGJutten BStarmans MHde Jong MCBegg ACSavelkouls KGBussink JVooijs MWouters BGRouschop KM.

Radiother Oncol. 2013 Jul 9. pii: S0167-8140(13)00293-4. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2013.06.015. [Epub ahead of print]Department of Radiation Oncology (Maastro Lab), GROW School for Oncology & Developmental Biology, Maastricht University Medical Center+, Maastricht, The Netherlands.



Tumor hypoxia is associated with therapy resistance and malignancy. Previously we demonstrated that activation of autophagy and the unfolded protein response (UPR) promote hypoxia tolerance. Here we explored the importance of ULK1 in hypoxia tolerance, autophagy induction and its prognostic value for recurrence after treatment.


Hypoxic regulation of ULK1 mRNA and protein was assessed in vitro and in primary human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) xenografts. Its importance in autophagy induction, mitochondrial homeostasis and tolerance to chronic and acute hypoxia was evaluated in ULK1 knockdown cells. The prognostic value of ULK1 mRNA expression was assessed in 82 HNSCC patients.


ULK1 enrichment was observed in hypoxic tumor regions. High enrichment was associated with a high hypoxic fraction. In line with these findings, high ULK1 expression in HNSCC patients appeared associated with poor local control. Exposure of cells to hypoxia induced ULK1 mRNA in a UPR and HIF1α dependent manner. ULK1 knockdown decreased autophagy activation, increased mitochondrial mass and ROS exposure and sensitized cells to acute and chronic hypoxia.


We demonstrate that ULK1 is a hypoxia regulated gene and is associated with hypoxia tolerance and a worse clinical outcome.

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.


Autophagy, Hypoxia, ULK1, UPR