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Stabilization of the G-quadruplex at the VEGF IRES represses cap-independent translation.


The activation of translation contributes to malignant transformation and is an emerging target for cancer therapies. RNA G-quadruplex structures are general inhibitors of cap-dependent mRNA translation and were recently shown to be targeted for oncoprotein translational activation. In contrast however, the G-quadruplex within the 5'UTR of the human vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF) has been shown to be essential for IRES-mediated translation. Since VEGF has a pivotal role in tumor angiogenesis and is a major target of anti-tumoral therapies, we investigated the structure/function relationship of the VEGF G-quadruplex and defined whether it could have a therapeutic potential. We found that the G-quadruplex within the VEGF IRES is dispensable for cap-independent function and activation in stress conditions. However, stabilization of the VEGF G-quadruplex by increasing the G-stretches length or by replacing it with the one of NRAS results in strong inhibition of IRES-mediated translation of VEGF. We also demonstrate that G-quadruplex ligands stabilize the VEGF G-quadruplex and inhibit cap-independent translation in vitro. Importantly, the amount of human VEGF mRNA associated with polysomes decreases in the presence of a highly selective stabilizing G-quadruplex ligand, resulting in reduced VEGF protein expression. Together, our results uncover the existence of functionally silent G-quadruplex structures that are susceptible to conversion into efficient repressors of cap-independent mRNA translation. These findings have implications for the in vivo applications of G-quadruplex-targeting compounds and for anti-angiogenic therapies.