Salk Institute
Reuben J. Shaw
Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist
Reuben J. Shaw

Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist


Reuben Shaw, professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory and the Dulbecco Laboratory for Cancer Research, studies signal transduction pathways that underlie the development of cancer as well as type 2 diabetes.

Our work centers around a human tumor suppressor named LKB1. LKB1 is mutationally inactivated in the familial cancer disease Peutz-Jegher Syndrome as well as in a large percentage of sporadic lung adenocarcinomas. Interestingly, LKB1 encodes a threonine kinase that serves to activate a number of downstream kinases, including the AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which is a critical regulator of metabolism, and the par-1/MARK family of kinases that regulate cell polarity.

Using a combination of proteomic and bioinformatics approaches, we identified AMPK as a direct substrate of LKB1. AMPK is a well known highly conserved regulator of cell metabolism that is activated under conditions of energy stress. We propose that the LKB1-dependent activation of AMPK in response to these stress stimuli may act as a low energy checkpoint in the cell. This unexpected connection between a well-known regulator of cellular metabolism and a tumor suppressor gene led to two immediate questions: Does AMPK have a role in tumor suppression and conversely, does the LKB1 tumor suppressor have a role in metabolic control in critical tissues in mammals? We have found that indeed both are true and that through the phosphorylation of specific targets by AMPK, these wide effects on physiology are regulated.

One way that LKB1 and AMPK regulate tumorigenesis is through regulation of the mTOR kinase, a conserved integrator of nutrient and growth factor signaling. We found that AMPK directly phosphorylates the TSC2 tumor suppressor and activates it to inhibit mTOR signaling. Consistent with this observation from cell culture, tumors lacking LKB1 were found to contain elevated levels of mTOR compared to surrounding epithelium. These findings culminated in the observation that three different human hamartoma syndromes, involving loss of TSC1/2, PTEN, and LKB1, all share a common biochemical underpinning: hyperactivation of mTOR signaling. We also generated a tissue-specific knockout of LKB1 in liver and also observed dramatic elevations of mTOR signaling in this context.

We chose to knockout LKB1 in liver as liver is known to be a tissue where AMPK activity is thought to be critical. Indeed, we found that loss of LKB1 led to a complete loss of AMPK activation and severe diabetes-like phenotypes in in these mice. We found that both gluconeogenic and lipogenic gene expression were upregulated in the livers of these mice, due in part to the loss of phosphorylation of a critical transcriptional coactivator termed TORC2 by AMPK and related kinases in the absence of LKB1. Finally we showed that metformin, one of the most widely prescribed type 2 diabetes therapeutics in the world, requires LKB1/AMPK signaling in the liver in order to exert its therapeutic benefit.

Future studies in our lab will focus on further elucidating these critical signaling pathways at this emerging interface between cancer and diabetes. We will employ a variety of biochemical, cell-biological, and genetic mouse models to dissect these biological processes. In addition, we will examine how existing diabetic therapeutics may be useful in the treatment of tumors with defined genetic lesions.

"We investigate the mechanisms connecting cell metabolism to growth control by studying an ancient signaling pathway that goes awry in both cancer and type 2 diabetes. By understanding the connection between these diseases, we pave the way to better therapies for both."

While investigating one of the most commonly mutated genes in lung cancer, LKB1, Shaw's lab discovered that the gene directly activates a metabolic master switch known as AMPK. This direct connection of LKB1 to AMPK provided a stronger molecular link between cancer and diabetes than was ever known previously. The lab went on to molecularly decode a number of new components of this biochemical pathway that connects nutrition to both cancer and diabetes. In the past two years, their studies have led to the discovery of new therapies for both cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Recently, Shaw's group found that AMPK initiates a cellular recycling process known as autophagy, which allows cells to dispose of toxins, by activating an enzyme known as ULK1. To test the effects on autophagy of deregulating these enzymes, the group focused on large intracellular structures called mitochondria, whose role is to generate energy. Mitochondria are easily damaged in detoxifying tissues like liver, and defective mitochondria are turned over through a special form of autophagy called mitophagy. The researchers found that the ability to recycle their defective mitochondria allowed cells to survive starvation better. This work suggests that drugs regulating ULK1 itself may be useful for treating certain forms of cancer or metabolic disease.

The Shaw lab also discovered another new set of AMPK targets, but in this case focused on targets that may be key for diabetes, knowing that AMPK is one of the critical enzymes controlled by the widely used diabetes drug metformin. They discovered that proteins known as histone deacetylases (HDACs) are regulated by AMPK and play a vital role in directing glucose production in the liver. Normally, in response to fasting, hormonal cues tell the liver to produce its own glucose from scratch to keep the body alive, and these HDACs are required in liver cells for the hormone to transmit that signal. This new finding—that HDACs play a critical role in diabetes—further connects metabolic disease with cancer. Prior to this, a number of HDAC inhibitor drugs were being evaluated in clinical trials as potential treatments for cancer, some of which now may find utility in the treatment of diabetes.

Lab Photo

Left to right:
Reuben Shaw, Daniel Garcia, Bibiana Ferreira, Dan Egan, Debbie Vasquez, Matthew Chun, Portia Lombardo, Rob Svensson, Nate Young, Rebecca Kohnz, Erin Toyama, Maria Mihaylova, Benjamin Stein

Selected Publications

Egan, D., Chun, M., Vamos, M., Zou, H., Rong, J., Miller, C., Lou, H., Raveendra-Panickar, D., Yang, C., Sheffler, D., Teriete, P., Asara, J., Turk, B., Cosford, N., and Shaw, R. (2015) Small Molecule Inhibition of the Autophagy Kinase ULK1 and Identification of ULK1 Substrates. Mol Cell 59:285-297.

Shaw, R. (2015) Tumor Metabolism: MAGE help TRIM turnover AMPK. Curr Biol

Mochiroud, L., Eichner, L.J., Shaw, R. and Auwerx, J. (2014) Transcriptional Coregulators: Fine-Tuning Metabolism. Cell Metab 20:26-40.

Luan, B., Goodarzi, M.O., Phillips, N.G., Guo, X., Chen, Y.D., Yao, J., Allison, M., Rotter, J.I., Shaw, R., and Montminy, M. (2014) Leptin-mediated increases in catecholamine signaling reduce adipose tissue inflammation via activation of macrophage HDAC4. Cell Metab 19:1058-1065.

Mihaylova, M.M. and Shaw, R.J. (2013) Metabolic reprogramming by class I and II histone deacetylases. Trends Endocrinol Metab 24:48-57.

Shackelford, D.B., Abt, E., Gerken, L., Vasquez, D.S., Atsuko, S., Leblanc, M., Wei, L., Fishbein, M.C., Czernin, J., Mischel, P.S. and Shaw, R.J. (2013) LKB1 inactivation dictates therapeutic response of non-small cell lung cancer to the metabolism drug phenformin. Cancer Cell 23:143-158.

Auricchio, N., Malinowska, I., Shaw, R., Manning, B.D., and Kwiatkowski, D.J. (2012). Therapeutic trial of metformin and bortezomib in a mouse model of tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). PLoS ONE 7:e31900.

Shaw, R.J. and Cantley, L.C. (2012) Decoding key nodes in the metabolism of cancer cells: sugar & spice and all things nice. F1000 Biol Rep 4:2.

Shaw, R.J. and Cantley, L.C. (2012) Ancient Sensor for Ancient Drug. Science 336:813-4.

Svensson, R.U. and Shaw, R.J. (2012) Cancer metabolism: Tumour friend or foe. Nature 485:590-591.

Xia, Y., Yeddula, N., LeBlanc, M., Ke, E., Zhang, Y., Oldfield, E., Shaw, R.J. and Verma, I.M. (2012) Reduced cell proliferation by IKK2 depletion in a mouse lung-cancer model. Nat Cell Biol 14:257-65.

Akhtar, A., Fuchs, E., Mitchison, T., Shaw, R.J., St. Johnston, D., Strasser, A., Taylor, S., Walczak, C. and Zerial, M. (2011) A decade of molecular cell biology: achievements and challenges. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 12:669-674.

Mihaylova, M.M., Vasquez, D.S., Ravnskjaer, K., Denechaud, P-D., Yu, R.T., Alvarez, J.G., Downes, M., Evans, R.M., Montminy, M. and Shaw, R.J. (2011) Class IIa Histone Deacetylases are Hormone-activated regulators of FOXO and Mammalian Glucose Homeostasis. Cell 145, 1-15. [doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.03.043]

Li, Y., Xu, S., Mihaylova, M., Zheng, B., Hou, X., Jiang, B., Park, O., Luo, Z., Lefai, E., Shyy, J.Y-J., Gao, B., Wierzbicki, M., Verbeuren, T.J., Shaw, R.J., Cohen, R.A. and Zang, M. (2011) AMPK Phosphorylates and Inhibits SREBP Activity to Attenuate Hepatic Steatosis and Atherosclerosis in Diet-induced Insulin Resistant Mice. Cell Metab 13, 376-388.

Mair, W., Morantte, I., Rodrigues, A.P., Manning, G., Montminy, M., Shaw, R.J. and Dillin, A. (2011) Lifespan extension induced by AMPK and calcineurin is mediated by CRTC-1 and CREB. Nature 470, 404-408.

Egan, D.F., Shackelford, D.B., Mihaylova, M.M., Gelino, S.R., Kohnz, R.A., Mair, W., Vasquez, D.S., Joshi, A., Gwinn, D.M., Taylor, R., Asara, J.M., Fitzpatrick, J., Dillin, A., Viollet, B., Kundu. M., Hansen, M. and Shaw, R.J. (2011) Phosphorylation of ULK1 (hATG1) by AMP-Activated Protein Kinase Connects Energy Sensing to Mitophagy. Science 331, 456-461.

Shackelford, D.B. and Shaw, R.J. (2009) The LKB1-AMPK pathway: metabolism and growth control in tumor suppression. Nat. Rev. Cancer, 9, 563-575.

Shackelford, D.B., Vasquez, D.S., Corbeil, J., Wu, S., Leblanc, M., Wu, C.L., Vera, D.R., and Shaw, R.J. (2009) mTOR- and HIF-1a mediated tumor metabolism in an LKB1 mouse model of Peutz-Jeghers syndrome. PNAS 106, 11137-11142.

Narkar, V.A., Downes, M., Yu, R.T., Wang, Y.X., Kanakubo, E., Banayo, E., Mihaylova, M.M., Nelson, M.C., Zou, Y., Juguilon, H., Kang. H., Shaw, R.J., and Evans. R.M. (2008) AMPK and PPARβ/δ agonists are exercise mimetics. Cell 134, 405-415.

Gwinn, D.M., Shackelford, D.B., Egan., D.F., Mihaylova, M.M., Mery, A., Vasquez, D.S., Turk, B.E., and Shaw, R.J. (2008) AMPK phosphorylation of raptor mediates a metabolic checkpoint. Mol Cell 30, 214-26.

Shaw, R.J.  Glucose metabolism and cancer (2006) Curr. Opin. Cell Biol. 18, 598-608.

Shaw, R.J. and Cantley, L.C. (2006)  Ras, PI3(K), and mTOR signaling control tumor cell growth.  Nature 441, 424-430.

Shaw, R.J., Lamia, K.A., Vasquez, D., Koo, S.H., Bardeesy, N., DePinho, R.A., Montminy, M., Cantley, L.C. (2005)  The Kinase LKB1 Mediates Glucose Homeostasis in Liver and Therapeutic Effects of Metformin. Science 310, 1642-6.

Shaw, R.J., Bardeesy, N., Manning, B., Lopez, L. Kosmatka, M., DePinho, R.A., and Cantley, L.C.  (2004).  The LKB1 tumor suppressor negatively regulates mTOR signaling.  Cancer Cell 6, 91-99

Shaw, R.J., Kosmatka, M., Bardeesy, N., Hurley, R.L., Witters, L.A., DePinho, R.A., Cantley, L.C.  (2004). The tumor suppressor LKB1 kinase directly activates AMP-activated kinase and regulates apoptosis in response to energy stress.  PNAS 101, 3329-3335

Salk News Releases

Awards and Honors

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist Award (2009-2015)
  • Hearst Assistant Professorship Chair (2009-2012)
  • American Diabetes Association Junior Faculty Award (2008-2011)
  • American Cancer Society Research Scholar (2007-2011)
  • V Scholar for Cancer Research (2006-2007)

New drug squashes cancer's last-ditch efforts to survive

June 25, 2015

LA JOLLA—As a tumor grows, its cancerous cells ramp up an energy-harvesting process to support its hasty development. This process, called autophagy, is normally used by a cell to recycle damaged organelles and proteins, but is also co-opted by cancer cells to meet their increased energy and metabolic demands. Read more»


New gene discovered that stops the spread of deadly cancer

July 17, 2014

LA JOLLA—Scientists at the Salk Institute have identified a gene responsible for stopping the movement of cancer from the lungs to other parts of the body, indicating a new way to fight one of the world's deadliest cancers.

By identifying the cause of this metastasis—which often happens quickly in lung cancer and results in a bleak survival rate—Salk scientists are able to explain why some tumors are more prone to spreading than others. The newly discovered pathway, detailed today in Molecular Cell, may also help researchers understand and treat the spread of melanoma and cervical cancers. Read more»


"Fasting pathway" points the way to new class of diabetes drugs

May 12, 2011

A uniquely collaborative study by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies uncovered a novel mechanism that turns up glucose production in the liver when blood sugar levels drop, pointing towards a new class of drugs for the treatment of metabolic disease.

Their findings, published in the May 13, 2011, issue of the journal Cell, revealed a crucial role for so called histone deacetylases (HDACs), a group of enzymes that is the target of the latest generation of cancer drugs. HDACs get sugar production rolling when blood glucose levels run low after prolonged periods of fasting or during the night. Read more>>

Get Involved

Sign up for our email newsletter

Fill out my online form.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Street: 10010 N Torrey Pines Rd
City: La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: 858.453.4100
Charity Navigator Rating
  • Salk Twitter
  • Salk LinkedIn
  • Salk Facebook
  • Salk Instagram
  • Salk Google+
  • Salk YouTube
  • Salk RSS Feed
© Copyright 2015 Salk Institute for Biological Studies | Privacy Policy About Scientists & Research News & Media Events Support