Molecular Oncology Research Institute (MORI)

Buchsbaum Laboratory


Rachel Buchsbaum, MD is the Principal Investigator of the Molecular Oncology Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center in downtown Boston, MA.The Buchsbaum Laboratory focuses on studying signal transduction pathways underlying cancer cell growth and metastasis. In particular, we are interested in pathways involving the Rac protein, a member of the Ras superfamily that is a central player in multiple signaling pathways affecting malignant cell behavior. We have found that Rac signaling can be directed through a network of distinct pathways, involving cell survival and apoptosis, cell cycling and growth, and migration and invasion, by a major regulator protein, Tiam1. A major interest is the regulation of this Tiam1/Rac signaling network in normal and malignant cells.

We are also exploring a novel hypothesis that Tiam1 in the tumor microenvironment plays a major role in regulating cancer cell invasion and metastasis. We are focused on uncovering the molecular mechanisms underlying the function of Tiam1 in the tumor microenvironment and applying knowledge of the involved signaling pathways to develop therapeutic approaches against breast cancer invasion and metastasis as well as clinical tools for stratifying risk and prognosis.

Research Focus Areas

Rac and Tiam 1 Signaling in Cancer

The Rac GTPase has a role in many cellular functions that are deranged in cancer cells, including cell motility and adhesion, cell growth and proliferation, and cell survival and apoptosis. Rac activation triggers diverse signaling pathways, including those governing movements of the actin cytoskeleton, activation of transcription factors, and regulation of the NADPH oxidase complex. GTP-bound Rac mediates these multiple functions through interactions with a host of downstream effector proteins.

Activation of the Rac GTPase occurs through exchange of bound GDP for GTP, catalyzed by one of a number of Rac-specific guanine nucleotide exchange factors (Rac-GEFs). Rac-GEFs all contain similar catalytic DH (Dbl homology) domains adjacent to PH (pleckstrin homology) domains, but differ in their tissue distribution and activation by distinct upstream signals. Tiam1 is a widely expressed Rac-GEF which, like Rac itself, has a role in multiple cellular processes in both normal and malignant cells. Tiam1 promotes invasion in lymphocytes and fibroblasts and adhesion in epithelial cells, and regulates apoptosis in human leukemia cells and axon formation at neuronal growth cones. Tiam1 mediates the effects of Ras transformation on Rac, and is also implicated in signaling pathways involving Src, β-catenin and LEF1/TCF, E-cadherin, and TIMPs (tissues inhibitors of matrix metalloproteinases). To date, all of the myriad effects of Tiam1 are dependent on its ability to activate Rac.

As both Tiam1 and Rac are implicated in multiple downstream effects, mechanisms must exist which determine Tiam1/Rac signaling specificity. Given the explosion of knowledge of signaling pathways over the last two decades, determining mechanisms of signaling specificity and regulation of pathway networks is a major research focus in the field of signal transduction. The regulation of Tiam1 activity is complex, involving multiple phosphorylations, phosphoinositide binding, and modulation of cellular protein levels. However, factors governing the specificity of Tiam1/Rac signaling in terms of downstream events may be more important in determining the ultimate outcome of Tiam1 activation of Rac and the consequences for cellular behavior.

Tiam 1 Influences Rac Signaling Specificity

We have found that Tiam1 itself plays a key role in determining Rac signaling specificity. There have been earlier suggestions that Rac-GEFs play a role in determining signaling pathways downstream of Rac, since expression of specific Rac-GEFs leads to different cellular responses despite similar levels of Rac activation. One mechanism for this is that individual exchange factors can participate in the selection of specific Rac effector proteins for activation. Through participation in protein complexes, Tiam1 determines which downstream pathways are triggered by the Rac molecules it activates. Tiam1 contains N-terminal domains, including adjoining PH and coiled-coil (CC) domains, which participate in a variety of interactions with other molecules. We have found that through these domains Tiam1 binds to at least 3 different families of scaffold protein complexes, leading to distinct downstream signals. Scaffold proteins are large, multi-domain proteins that serve to organize the components of particular signaling pathways in space and time in order to facilitate directed signal transmission. In this case, the scaffold proteins bring an upstream activator of Rac (Tiam1) together with components of signaling pathways downstream of Rac. The presence of Tiam1 at a scaffold complex generates activated Rac in the context of a specific downstream effector, thereby leading to directed signaling downstream of Rac. We have shown that Tiam1 interacts with members of the IB/JIP map kinase scaffold family, leading to activation of p38 and Jnk. The p38 and Jnk map kinases have significant roles in cell survival and apoptosis.

Tiam 1 Regulation

Thus we have identified mechanisms for specifying Tiam1/Rac signaling to pathways affecting cell survival, cell growth, and cell motility, all processes affected in cancer. This leads to two major questions for further investigation. The first is how the various interactions of Tiam1 are regulated. Defining the upstream signals and potential modifications of Tiam1 that lead to its participation in a specific scaffold complex will greatly expand our understanding of what triggers specific Rac functions in cells. Recently we have been using FRET (Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer) techniques to study these questions, which have furthered our understanding of the upstream signals regulating Tiam1-scaffold interactions.

Figure 1. Localization of activated Rac after stimulation detected by fluorescence resonance energy transfer. Green signals indicate areas of Rac activation. After pervanadate or PDGF stimulation (top row), Rac is not activated in cells lacking Tiam1 or IRSp53, while Rac activation is normal in cells lacking spinophilin. After forskolin or epinephrine stimulation (bottom row), Rac activation is preserved in cells lacking IRSp53, but not spinophilin.

Effects on Cell Behavior

The second question is how Rac signaling specificity directed by Tiam1 affects overall cellular behavior. We are using three-dimensional tissue culture models, organotypic culture models, and a mouse model of human breast cancer to study the role of the Tiam1-scaffold protein signaling network in cancer invasion and metastasis. This has led us to develop a novel model of the role of Tiam1 and Rac signaling in cancer cell invasion. We anticipate that precise dissection of how each part of the network contributes to the aberrant behavior of cancer cells will lead to new therapeutic options for treating human cancers.

Figure 2. Cortical actin changes and ruffling in cells after replating. Beta (green) and gamma (red) isoforms of actin were visualized by fluorescent tags in cells after replating. In cells lacking Tiam1 or IRSp53, replating is significantly delayed, correlating with Rac activation by pervanadate and PDGF, and indicating increased potential for cell movement.

Tiam1 also interacts with a second scaffold protein, spinophilin/neurabin II, leading to activation of the p70 S6 kinase. S6 kinase plays a key role in cell growth through regulating initiation of protein translation. We have also identified a third interaction involving Tiam1 and IRSp53, an adaptor protein binding to WAVE2. WAVE2 is a scaffold protein for the Arp2/3 complex and mediates actin cytoskeleton, with implications for cell migration and invasion. The same relatively small region of Tiam1 mediates all these scaffold complex interactions. Tiam1 also binds to the hyaluronic acid receptor CD44 and the polarity complex protein Par-3 through this region. Presumably distinct upstream signals trigger differential interactions of Tiam1 with the various scaffold protein complexes, with distinct consequences for downstream signaling. Tiam1 may therefore serve as a key integrating molecule for signals both upstream and downstream of Rac.

Principal Investigator + Staff

Rachel J. Buchsbaum, MD
Kun Xu, PhD


View all publications via PubMed

Shah GL, Winn AN, Lin PJ, Klein A, Sprague KA, Smith HP, Buchsbaum R, Cohen JT, Miller KB, Comenzo R, Parsons SK. Cost-Effectiveness of Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation for Elderly Patients with Multiple Myeloma using the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results-Medicare Database.  Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2015 Oct;21(10):1823-9.

Schubert SM1, Arendt LM2, Zhou W2, Baig S1, Walter SR1, Buchsbaum RJ3, Kuperwasser C2, Walt DR1. Ultra-sensitive protein detection via Single Molecule Arrays towards early stage cancer monitoring. Sci Rep. 2015 Jun 8;5:11034.

Buchsbaum RJ1, Oh SY2 Breast Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go, Cancers (Basel). 2016 Jan 27;8(2). pii: E19. doi: 10.3390/cancers8020019.

Xu K1, Tian X2, Oh SY3,4, Movassaghi M5, Naber SP6, Kuperwasser C7,8, Buchsbaum RJ9,10. The fibroblast Tiam1-osteopontin pathway modulates breast cancer invasion and metastasis.  
Breast Cancer Res. 2016 Jan 28;18(1):14

Xu K1, Buchsbaum RJ., Isolation of mammary epithelial cells from three-dimensional mixed-cell spheroid co-culture, J Vis Exp. 2012 Apr 30;(62). pii: 3760.

Liu J1, Xu K, Chase M, Ji Y, Logan JK, Buchsbaum RJ., Tiam1-regulated osteopontin in senescent fibroblasts contributes to the migration and invasion of associated epithelial cells., J Cell Sci. 2012 Jan 15;125(Pt 2):376-86

Liu J, Xu K, Chase M, Ji Y, Logan JK, Buchsbaum RJ. 2012. Tiam1-regulated osteopontin in senescent fibroblasts contributes to the migration and invasion of associated epithelial cells. J Cell Science. Epub ahead of print. Abstract

Xu K and Buchsbaum RJ. 2012. Isolation of mammary epithelial cells from three-dimensional mixed-cell spheroid co-culture. J Vis Exp, in press.

Xu K, Rajagopal S, Klebba I, Dong S, Ji Y, Liu J, Kuperwasser C, Garlick JA, Naber SP, Buchsbaum RJ. 2010. The role of fibroblast Tiam1 in tumor cell invasion and metastasis. Oncogene 29: 6533-6542. Abstract

Rajagopal S, Ji Y, Xu K, Li Y, Wicks K, Liu J, Herman IM, Wong K-W, Isberg RR, and Buchsbaum RJ. 2010. Scaffold proteins IRSp53 and Spinophilin regulate localized Rac activation by Tiam1. J Biol Chem. 285: 18060-180671. Abstract

Buchsbaum RJ. 2007. Rho activation at a glance. J Cell Sci. 120: 1149-1152. Abstract

Connolly BA, Rice J, Feig LA, Buchsbaum RJ. 2005. Tiam1-IRSp53 complex formation directs specificity of rac-mediated actin cytoskeleton regulation. Mol Cell Biol 25:4602-4614. Abstract

Buchsbaum RJ, Connolly BA, Feig LA. 2003. Regulation of p70 S6 kinase by complex formation between the Rac guanine nucleotide exchange factor (Rac-GEF) Tiam1 and the scaffold spinophilin. J Biol Chem 278:18833-18841. Abstract

Buchsbaum RJ, Connolly BA, Feig LA. 2002. Interaction of Rac exchange factors Tiam1 and Ras-GRF1 with a scaffold for the p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase cascade. Mol Cell Biol 22:4073-4085. Abstract

Feig LA, Buchsbaum RJ. 2002. Cell signaling: life or death decisions of ras proteins. Curr Biol 12:R259-R261. Abstract

Buchsbaum R, Telliez JB, Goonesekera S, Feig LA. 1996. The N-terminal pleckstrin, coiled-coil, and IQ domains of the exchange factor Ras-GRF act cooperatively to facilitate activation by calcium. Mol Cell Biol 16:4888-4896. Abstract