The role of alternative splicing in cancer: From oncogenesis to drug resistance

Rocco Sciarrillo, Anna Wojtuszkiewicz, Yehuda G. Assaraf, Gerrit Jansen, Gertjan J. L. Kaspers, Elisa Giovannetti, Jacqueline Cloos

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


Alternative splicing is a tightly regulated process whereby non-coding sequences of pre-mRNA are removed and protein-coding segments are assembled in diverse combinations, ultimately giving rise to proteins with distinct or even opposing functions. In the past decade, whole genome/transcriptome sequencing studies revealed the high complexity of splicing regulation, which occurs co-transcriptionally and is influenced by chromatin status and mRNA modifications. Consequently, splicing profiles of both healthy and malignant cells display high diversity and alternative splicing was shown to be widely deregulated in multiple cancer types. In particular, mutations in pre-mRNA regulatory sequences, splicing regulators and chromatin modifiers, as well as differential expression of splicing factors are important contributors to cancer pathogenesis. It has become clear that these aberrations contribute to many facets of cancer, including oncogenic transformation, cancer progression, response to anticancer drug treatment as well as resistance to therapy. In this respect, alternative splicing was shown to perturb the expression a broad spectrum of relevant genes involved in drug uptake/metabolism (i.e. SLC29A1, dCK, FPGS, and TP), activation of nuclear receptor pathways (i.e. GR, AR), regulation of apoptosis (i.e. MCL1, BCL-X, and FAS) and modulation of response to immunotherapy (CD19). Furthermore, aberrant splicing constitutes an important source of novel cancer biomarkers and the spliceosome machinery represents an attractive target for a novel and rapidly expanding class of therapeutic agents. Small molecule inhibitors targeting SF3B1 or splice factor kinases were highly cytotoxic against a wide range of cancer models, including drug-resistant cells. Importantly, these effects are enhanced in specific cancer subsets, such as splicing factor-mutated and c-MYC-driven tumors. Furthermore, pre-clinical studies report synergistic effects of spliceosome modulators in combination with conventional antitumor agents. These strategies based on the use of low dose splicing modulators could shift the therapeutic window towards decreased toxicity in healthy tissues. Here we provide an extensive overview of the latest findings in the field of regulation of splicing in cancer, including molecular mechanisms by which cancer cells harness alternative splicing to drive oncogenesis and evade anticancer drug treatment as well as splicing-based vulnerabilities that can provide novel treatment opportunities. Furthermore, we discuss current challenges arising from genome-wide detection and prediction methods of aberrant splicing, as well as unravelling functional relevance of the plethora of cancer-related splicing alterations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100728
JournalDrug resistance updates
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • Alternative splicing
  • Cancer
  • Drug resistance
  • Oncogenesis
  • SF3B1 inhibition
  • Splicing factor mutation
  • Splicing modulation

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