BACKGROUNDThe membrane-bound mucins are thought to play an important biological role in cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions, in cell signaling and in modulating biological properties of cancer cell. MUC4, a transmembrane mucin is overexpressed in pancreatic tumors, while remaining undetectable in the normal pancreas, thus indicating a potential role in pancreatic cancer pathogenesis. The molecular mechanisms involved in the regulation of MUC4 gene are not yet fully understood. Smoking is strongly correlated with pancreatic cancer and in the present study; we elucidate the molecular mechanisms by which nicotine as well as agents like retinoic acid (RA) and interferon-γ (IFN-γ) induce the expression of MUC4 in pancreatic cancer cell lines CD18, CAPAN2, AsPC1 and BxPC3.RESULTSChromatin immunoprecipitation assays and real-time PCR showed that transcription factors E2F1 and STAT1 can positively regulate MUC4 expression at the transcriptional level. IFN-γ and RA could collaborate with nicotine in elevating the expression of MUC4, utilizing E2F1 and STAT1 transcription factors. Depletion of STAT1 or E2F1 abrogated the induction of MUC4; nicotine-mediated induction of MUC4 appeared to require α7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit. Further, Src and ERK family kinases also mediated the induction of MUC4, since inhibiting these signaling molecules prevented the induction of MUC4. MUC4 was also found to be necessary for the nicotine-mediated invasion of pancreatic cancer cells, suggesting that induction of MUC4 by nicotine and other agents might contribute to the genesis and progression of pancreatic cancer.CONCLUSIONSOur studies show that agents that can promote the growth and invasion of pancreatic cancer cells induce the MUC4 gene through multiple pathways and this induction requires the transcriptional activity of E2F1 and STAT1. Further, the Src as well as ERK signaling pathways appear to be involved in the induction of this gene. It appears that targeting these signaling pathways might inhibit the expression of MUC4 and prevent the proliferation and invasion of pancreatic cancer cells.