Conserved regulatory motifs in the juxtamembrane domain and kinase N-lobe revealed through deep mutational scanning of the MET receptor tyrosine kinase domain

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    This manuscript describes a deep mutational scanning study of the kinase domain of the MET receptor tyrosine kinase. The study yields a valuable catalog of essentially all possible deleterious mutations in this portion of the receptor., with convincing evidence. The manuscript will be of interest to researchers working in the field of receptor tyrosine kinases.

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MET is a receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) responsible for initiating signaling pathways involved in development and wound repair. MET activation relies on ligand binding to the extracellular receptor, which prompts dimerization, intracellular phosphorylation, and recruitment of associated signaling proteins. Mutations, which are predominantly observed clinically in the intracellular juxtamembrane and kinase domains, can disrupt typical MET regulatory mechanisms. Understanding how juxtamembrane variants, such as exon 14 skipping (METΔEx14), and rare kinase domain mutations can increase signaling, often leading to cancer, remains a challenge. Here, we perform a parallel deep mutational scan (DMS) of MET intracellular kinase domain in two fusion protein backgrounds: wild type and METΔEx14. Our comparative approach has revealed a critical hydrophobic interaction between a juxtamembrane segment and the kinase ⍺C helix, pointing to differences in regulatory mechanisms between MET and other RTKs. Additionally, we have uncovered a β5 motif that acts as a structural pivot for kinase domain activation in MET and other TAM family of kinases. We also describe a number of previously unknown activating mutations, aiding the effort to annotate driver, passenger, and drug resistance mutations in the MET kinase domain.

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  1. eLife assessment

    This manuscript describes a deep mutational scanning study of the kinase domain of the MET receptor tyrosine kinase. The study yields a valuable catalog of essentially all possible deleterious mutations in this portion of the receptor., with convincing evidence. The manuscript will be of interest to researchers working in the field of receptor tyrosine kinases.

  2. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    This manuscript by Estevam et al. reports new insights into the regulation of the receptor tyrosine kinase MET gained from two deep mutational scanning (DMS) datasets. In this paper, the authors use a classic selection system for oncogenic kinase signaling, the murine Ba/F3 cell line, to assess the functional effects of thousands of mutations in the kinase domains of MET in two contexts: (1) fusion of the whole MET intracellular region to the dimerization domain TPR, and (2) the same fusion protein, but with exon 14, which encodes part of the juxtamembrane region of MET, skipped. Critically, exon 14 skipping yields a version of MET that is found in many cancers and has higher signaling activity than the canonical MET isoform. The authors extensively analyze their DMS data to very convincingly show that their selection assay reports on kinase activity, by illustrating that many functionally important structural components of the kinase domain are not tolerant of mutation. Then, they turn their attention to a helical region of the juxtamembrane region (αJM), immediately after exon 14, which is posited to play a regulatory role in MET. Their DMS data illustrate that the strength and mutational tolerance of interactions between αJM and the key αC helix in the kinase domain depends on the presence or absence of exon 14. They also identify residues in the N-lobe of the kinase, such as P1153, which are not conserved across tyrosine kinases but appear to be essential for MET and MET-like kinases. Finally, the authors analyze their DMS data in the context of clinically-observed mutations and drug-resistance mutations.

    Overall, this manuscript is exciting because it provides new insights into MET regulation in general, as well as the role of exon 14. It also reveals ways in which the JM region of MET is different from that of many other receptor tyrosinekinases. The exon 14-skipped fusion protein DMS data is somewhat underexplored and could be discussed in greater detail, which would elevate excitement about the work. Furthermore, some of the cell biological validation experiments and the juxtaposition with clinical data are perhaps not assessed/interpreted as clearly they could be. Some constructive suggestions are given below to enhance the impact of the manuscript.

    The main strengths of this paper, also summarized above in the summary, are as follows:

    1. The authors very convincingly show that Ba/F3 cells can be coupled with deep mutational scanning to examine MET mutational effects. This is most clearly shown by highlighting how all of the known kinase structure and regulatory elements are highly sensitive to mutations, in accordance with a few other DMS datasets on other kinases.

    2. A highlight of this paper is the juxtaposition of two DMS datasets for two different isoforms of the MET receptor. Very few comparisons like this exist in the literature, and they show how small changes to the overall architecture of a protein can impact its regulation and mutational sensitivity.

    3. Another exciting advance in this manuscript is the deep structural analysis of the MET juxtamembrane region with respect to that of other tyrosine kinases - guided by the striking effect of mutations in the juxtamembrane helical region. The authors illustrate how the JM region of MET differs from that of other tyrosine kinases.

    4. Overall, this manuscript will provide a resource for interpreting clinically relevant MET mutations.

    1. The manuscript is front-loaded with extensive analysis of the first DMS dataset, in which exon 14 is present, however, the discussion and analysis of the exon 14-skipped dataset is somewhat limited. In particular, a deeper discussion of the differences between the two datasets is warranted, to lay out the full landscape of mutations that have different functional consequences in the two isoforms. Rather, the authors only focus on differences in the JM region. What are the broader structural effects of exon 14 skipping across the whole kinase domain?

    2. It is unclear if gain-of-function mutations can actually be detected robustly in this specific system. This isn't a problem at face value, as different selection assays have different dynamic ranges. However, the authors don't discuss the statistical significance and reproducibility of gain- vs loss-of-function mutations, and none of the gain-of-function mutations are experimentally validated (some appear to show loss-of-function in their cellular validation assay with full-length MET). The manuscript would benefit from deeper statistical analysis (and discussion in the text) of gain-of-function mutations, as well as further validation of a broad range of activity scores in a functional assay. For the latter point, one option would be to express individual clones from their library in Ba/F3 cells and blot for MET activation loop phosphorylation (which is probably a reasonable proxy for activity/activation).

    3. In light of point 2, above, much of the discussion about clinically-relevant gain-of-function mutations feels a bit stretched - although this section is definitely very interesting in premise. A clearer delineation of gain-of-function, with further statistical support and ideally also some validation, would greatly strengthen the claims in this section.

  3. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    The authors describe a deep mutational scanning (DMS) study of the kinase domain of the c-MET receptor tyrosine kinase. The screen is conducted with a highly activated fusion oncoprotein - Tpr-MET - in which the MET kinase domain is fused to the Tpr dimerization element. The mutagenized region includes the entire kinase domain and an alpha-helix in the juxtamembrane region that is essentially part of the MET kinase domain. The DMS screen is carried out in two contexts, one containing the entire cytoplasmic region of MET, and the other with an "exon 14 deletion" which removes a large portion of the juxtamembrane region (but retains the aforementioned alpha-helix). The work provides a robust and essentially exhaustive catalog of the effect of mutations (within the kinase domain) on the ability of the Tpr-MET fusion oncoproteins to drive IL3-independent growth of Ba/F3 cells. Every residue in the kinase is mutated to every natural amino acid. Given the design of the screen, one would expect it to be a powerful tool for identifying mutations that impair catalytic activity and therefore impair IL3-independent proliferation, but not the right tool for identifying gain-of-function mutations that operate by shifting the kinase from an inactive to active state (because the Tpr-Met fusion construct is already very highly activated). This is borne out by the data, which reveal many many deleterious mutations and few "gain-of-function" mutations (which are of uncertain significance, as discussed below).

    The authors take a very scholarly and thorough approach to interpreting the effect of mutations in light of available information for the structure and regulation of MET and other kinases. They examine the effect of mutations in the so-called catalytic (C) and regulatory (R) spines, the interface between the JM alpha-helix and the C-helix, the glycine-rich loop, and other key elements of the kinase, providing a structural rationale for the deleterious effect of mutations. Comparison of the panoply of deleterious mutations in the TPR-met versus TPR- exon14del-MET DMS screens reveals an interesting difference - the exon14 deletion MET is much more tolerant of mutations in the JM alpha-helix/C-helix interface. The reason for this is unclear, however.

    Because the screens were conducted with highly active Tpr-MET fusions, they have limited power to reveal gain-of-function mutations. Indeed, to the extent that Tpr-MET is as active or even more active than ligand-activated WT MET, one could argue that it is "fully" activated and that any additional gain of fitness would be "super-physiologic". I would expect such mutations to be rare (assuming that they could be detected at all in the Ba/F3 proliferation assay). Consistent with this, the authors note that gain-of-function mutations are rare in their screen (as judged by being more fit than the average of synonymous mutations). In their discussion of cancer-associated mutations, they highlight several "strong GOF variants in the DMS". It is unclear what the authors mean by "strong GOF", indeed it is unclear to this reviewer whether the screen has revealed any true gain of function mutations at all. A few points in this regard:

    1. more active than the average of synonymous mutations (nucleotide changes that have no effect on the sequence of the expressed protein) seems to be an awfully low bar for GOF - by that measure, several synonymous mutations would presumably be classified as GOF.

    2. In the +IL3 heatmap in supplemental Figure 1A, there is as much or more "blue" indicating GOF as in the -IL3 heatmap, which could suggest that the observed level of gain in fitness is noise, not signal.

    3. And finally, consistent with this interpretation, in Supplemental Figure 1C, comparing the synonymous and missense panels in the IL3 withdrawal condition suggests that the most active missense mutations (characterized here as strong GOF) are no more active than the most active synonymous mutations.

    My other major concern with the work as presented is that the authors conflate "activity" and "activation" in discussing the effects of mutations. "Activation" implies a role in regulation - affecting a switch between inactive and active conformations or states - at least in this reviewer's mind. As discussed above, the screen per se does not probe activation, only activity. To the extent that the residues discussed are important for activation/regulation of the kinase, that information is coming from prior structural/functional studies of MET and other kinases, not from the DMS screen conducted here. Of course, it is appropriate and interesting for the authors to consider residues that are known to form important structural/regulatory elements, but they should be careful with the use of activity vs. activation and make it clear to the reader that the screen probes the former. One example - in the abstract, the authors rightly note that their approach has revealed a critical hydrophobic interaction between the JM segment and the C-helix, but then they go on to assert that this points to differences in the regulation of MET and other RTKs. There is no evidence that this is a regulatory interaction, as opposed to simply a structural element present in MET (and indeed the authors' examination of prior crystal structures shows that the interaction is present in both active and inactive states.