Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Cancer Biology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Chengming Zhu

Committee Member

Hui-Kuan Lin

Committee Member

Randy Legerski

Committee Member

Bin Wang

Committee Member

Junjie Chen


The inability to maintain genomic stability and control proliferation are hallmarks of many cancers, which become exacerbated in the presence of unrepaired DNA damage. Such genotoxic stresses trigger the p53 tumor suppressor network to activate transient cell cycle arrest allowing for DNA repair; if the damage is excessive or irreparable, apoptosis or cellular senescence is triggered. One of the major DNA repair pathway that mends DNA double strand breaks is non-homologous end joining (NHEJ). Abrogating the NHEJ pathway leads to an accumulation of DNA damage in the lymphoid system that triggers p53-mediated apoptosis; complete deletion of p53 in this system leads to aggressive lymphomagenesis. Therefore, to study the effect of p53-dependent cell cycle arrest, we utilized a hypomorphic, separation-of-function mutant, p53p/p, which completely abrogates apoptosis yet retains partial cell cycle arrest ability. We crossed DNA ligase IV deficiency, a downstream ligase crucial in mending breaks during NHEJ, into the p53p/p background (Lig4-/-p53p/p). The accumulation of DNA damage activated the p53/p21 axis to trigger cellular senescence in developing lymphoid cells, which absolutely suppressed tumorigenesis. Interestingly, these mice progressively succumb to severe diabetes. Mechanistic analysis revealed that spontaneous DNA damage accumulated in the pancreatic b-cells, a unique subset of endocrine cells solely responsible for insulin production to regulate glucose homeostasis. The genesis of adult b-cells predominantly occurs through self-replication, therefore modulating cellular proliferation is an essential component for renewal. The progressive accumulation of DNA damage, caused by Lig4-/-, activated p53/p21-dependent cellular senescence in mutant pancreatic b-cells that lead to islet involution. Insulin levels subsequently decreased, deregulating glucose homeostasis driving overt diabetes. Our Lig4-/-p53p/p model aptly depicts the dichotomous role of cellular senescence—in the lymphoid system prevents tumorigenesis yet in the endocrine system leads to the decrease of insulin-producing cells causing diabetes.

To further delineate the function of NHEJ in pancreatic b-cells, we analyzed mice deficient in another component of the NHEJ pathway, Ku70. Although most notable for its role in DNA damage recognition and repair within the NHEJ pathway, Ku70 has NHEJ-independent functions in telomere maintenance, apoptosis, and transcriptional regulation/repression. To our surprise, Ku70-/-p53p/p mutant mice displayed a stark increase in b-cell proliferation, resulting in islet expansion, heightened insulin levels and hypoglycemia. Augmented b-cell proliferation was accompanied with the stabilization of the canonical Wnt pathway, responsible for this phenotype. Interestingly, the progressive onset of cellular senescence prevented islet tumorigenesis. This study highlights Ku70 as an important modulator in not only maintaining genomic stability through NHEJ-dependent functions, but also reveals a novel NHEJ-independent function through regulation of pancreatic b-cell proliferation. Taken in aggregate, these studies underscore the importance for NHEJ to maintain genomic stability in b-cells as well as introduces a novel regulator for pancreatic b-cell proliferation.


DNA damage, NHEJ, p53, senescence, diabetes