Liling Wan, Ph.D.

Liling Wan, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Cancer Biology; Assistant Investigator of Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute

Contact Information

Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Department of Cancer Biology
Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute
421 Curie Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6160
Office: 215-898-3116
Lab: 215-898-3698

Research Interest

The research interests in our laboratory lie in the intersection of cancer biology and epigenetics. We focus on chromatin – the complex of DNA and histone proteins – and its regulatory network. Cancer genome studies revealed that at least 50% of human cancers harbor mutations in genes encoding chromatin-associated factors, suggesting widespread roles of chromatin misregulation in cancer. We strive to understand chromatin function and its dysregulation in human cancer, with a focus on addressing how chromatin-based mechanisms regulate cellular fate transition and plasticity that endow cancer cells with tumor-promoting potentials. We use a host of different approaches in genetics, epigenetics, biochemistry, genome-wide sequencing, bioinformatics and functional genomics to address these questions. We are also interested in leveraging our basic mechanistic discoveries for therapeutics development.

Contribution To Science

  1. Molecular link between histone acetylation and oncogenic gene activation Histone acetylation is a chromatin mark generally associated with gene activation, yet the molecular mechanisms underlying this correlative relationship remain incompletely understood. I led a collaborative study in which we identified a novel ‘reader’ for histone acetylation named ENL. We showed in leukemia cells that ENL interacts with histone acetylation via the well-conserved YEATS domain, and in so doing, helps to recruit and stabilize its associated transcriptional machinery to drive transcription of leukemogenic genes. By determining the structure of ENL in complex with an acetylated histone peptide, we and our collaborators demonstrated that disrupting the reader function reduced chromatin recruitment of ENL-associated transcriptional machinery and resulted in suppression of oncogenic programs. Furthermore, blocking the functionality of ENL sensitized leukaemia cells to inhibitors that target another distinct class of histone acetylation readers, the BET proteins, thus highlighting the crosstalk between epigenetic readers and potential benefit of combinatorial therapies. Our work established ENL as a missing molecular link between histone acetylation and gene activation critical for leukemia malignant state, and has inspired following studies investigating other YEATS domain-containing proteins as a new class of chromatin ‘readers’ in a broad range of human cancers. In addition to bringing novel insights into our basic understanding of chromatin regulation, this work also provides mechanistic guidance and structural basis for ongoing drug development to target chromatin reading activity of ENL in aggressive leukemias.

Wan L#, Wen H#, Li Y#, Lyu J, Xi Y, Hoshii T, Joseph JK, Wang X, Loh YE, Erb MA, Souza AL, Bradner JE, Shen L, Li W, Li H*, Allis CD*, Armstrong SA*, Shi X*. ENL Links Histone Acetylation to Oncogenic Gene Activation in Leukemias. Nature 2017 Mar 9;543(7644):265-269. (#Equal contribution). PMC5372383
Li Y*, Sabari BR*, Panchenko T*, Wen H, Zhao D, Guan H, Wan L, Huang H, Tang Z, Zhao Y, Roeder RG, Shi X, Allis CD, Li H. Molecular Coupling of Histone Crotonylation and Active Transcription by AF9 YEATS Domain. Mol Cell2016 Apr 21;62(2):181-93. (*Equal contribution) PMC4841940

  1. New type of gain-of-function mutations in chromatin readers Recognition of modified histones by ‘reader’ proteins constitutes a key mechanism mediating the function of histone modifications, yet the mechanisms by which their dysregulation contributes to diseases remain poorly understood. Recurrent, hotspot mutations in the acetylation-reading domain (YEATS domain) of ENL were recently found in Wilms’ tumor, the most common type of pediatric kidney cancer. Whether and how these mutations cause the disease remained unknown. Our current work shows that these mutations confer ENL gain of function in driving abnormal gene expression implicated in cancer. Unexpectedly, these mutations promoted ENL self-association, resulting in the formation of discrete nuclear puncta that are characteristic of biomolecular condensates, a newly recognized form of protein assembly that often involves weak, multivalent molecular interactions and commonly underlies the formation of membrane-less organelles. We demonstrated that such a property drives ‘self-reinforced’ chromatin targeting of mutant ENL protein and associated transcriptional machinery, thus enforcing active transcription from target loci. Aberrant gene control driven by ENL mutations, in turn, perturbs developmental programs and derails normal cell fate to a path towards tumorigenesis. This work is a remarkable demonstration of how mistakes in chromatin reader-mediated process can act as a driving force for tumor formation. These mutations represent a new class of oncogenic mutations which impair cell fate through promoting self-association and reinforcing chromatin targeting.

Wan L#, Chong S, Fan X, Liang A, Cui X, Gates L, Carroll TS, Li Y, Feng L, Chen G, Wang S, Ortiz MV, Daley S, Wang X, Xuan H, Kentsis A, Muir TW, Roeder RG, Li H, Li W, Tjian R, Wen H#, Allis CD#. Impaired Cell Fate through Gain-of-function Mutations in a Chromatin Reader. Nature 2019 in press (#co-corresponding)

  1. Targeting chromatin readers as cancer therapies My postdoctoral work suggested that the displacement of histone acetylation reader ENL from chromatin may be a promising epigenetic therapy, alone or in combination with BET inhibitors, for aggressive leukemia. I have contributed to the development of peptidomimetic and small molecule inhibitors targeting the YEATS domain protein family. The ultimate goal of these and other ongoing efforts is to develop chemical probes targeting the ‘reading’ activity of ENL and other family members as valuable research tools and potential therapeutic agents.

Li X*, Li XM*, Jiang Y, Liu Z, Cui Y, Fung K, van der Beelen S, Tian G, Wan L, Shi X, Allis CD, Li H, Li Y#, Li X#. Structure-guided Development of YEATS Domain Inhibitors by Targeting π-π-π Stacking. Nat Chem Biol. 2018 Dec;14(12):1140-1149. (*Equal contribution) PMC6503841

  1. Molecular mechanisms of cancer metastasis Metastasis accounts for > 90% cancer-related deaths and yet is the most poorly understood aspect of cancer biology. I have contributed to studies in which we identified and characterized new molecular mechanisms for cancer metastasis. My graduate work focused on Metadherin (MTDH), a novel cancer gene identified by our group to be prevalently amplified in breast cancer and strongly associated with a high risk of metastasis and poor prognosis. What drives the strong selection of MTDH in primary tumors was unclear. By generating genetically engineered mouse models, we provided first evidence supporting an essential role of MTDH in the initiation and metastasis of diverse subtypes of breast cancer. We further showed that MTDH regulates the expansion and activity of cancer stem cells through working with its binding partner SND1. By determining the atomic structure of the complex via collaboration, we demonstrated that disrupting the complex impairs breast cancer development and metastasis in vivo. Our work establishes MTDH and SND1 as critical regulators of cancer development and provides mechanistic guidance for ongoing drug development efforts to target this complex as cancer therapy. More broadly, this work provides crucial experimental support for the emerging concept that metastatic potential could be conferred by early oncogenic events that possess additional metastasis-promoting function and advances our understanding of the origin of metastatic traits.

Wan L, Lu X, Yuan S, Wei Y, Guo F, Shen M, Yuan M, Chakrabarti R, Hua Y, Smith HA, Blanco MA, Chekmareva M, Wu H, Bronson RT, Haffty BG, Xing Y, Kang Y. MTDH-SND1 Interaction Is Crucial for Expansion and Activity of Tumor-Initiating Cells in Diverse Oncogene- and Carcinogen-Induced Mammary Tumors. Cancer Cell 2014 Jul 14;26(1):92-105. PMC4101059
Wan L, Pantel K, Kang Y. Tumor Metastasis: Moving New Biological Insights into the Clinic. Nature Medicine 2013 Nov;19(11):1450-64. PMID: 24202397
Guo F#, Wan L#, Zheng A, Stanevich V, Wei Y, Satyshur KA, Shen M, Lee W, Kang Y, Xing Y. Structural Insights into the Tumor-Promoting Function of the MTDH-SND1 Complex. Cell Reports 2014 Sep 25;8(6):1704-13.  (#Equal contribution). PMC4309369
Wan L, Hu G, Wei Y, Yuan M, Bronson RT, Yang Q, Siddiqui J, Pienta KJ, Kang Y. Genetic Ablation of Metadherin Inhibits Autochthonous Prostate Cancer Progression and Metastasis. Cancer Research 2014 Sep 15;74(18):5336-47. PMC4167565
Kang Y, Xing Y, Wan L, Guo F. Use of peptides that block metadherin-SND1 interaction as treatment for cancer. (U.S. Patent No. 10,357,539 B2).

Lab Members