Background: Ets genes encode a family of transcription factors that play key roles in cell proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis. Fusions of Ets genes with other targets have been described in Ewing's sarcoma, chronic myelomonocytic leukemia and more recently prostate carcinoma. Ets expression in breast carcinoma has not been comprehensively studied, and is the focus of this study.
Methods: RT-Q-PCR was used to determine the expression of Ets genes in a panel of ten common breast cancer cell lines, two immortalized normal breast epithelial cell lines, and one primary culture of human mammary epithelial cells. Ets with altered expression in cancer cell lines were verified in primary breast tumors.
Results: Transcripts of 21 of the 27 Ets genes were detected in either normal or cancer cells. Of the 21 detectable genes, 14 were expressed at a similar level in both normal and breast cancer cell lines. Four genes, Ehf, Elf3, Elf5 and Pdef, were expressed at higher levels in breast cancer cells than normal epithelials. Surprisingly, the expression of Elk3, Etsl and Flil was repressed in breast cancer cells. The protein status of Ehf, Elf3, Pdef, Elk3, Etsl and Flil, strongly correlated with the transcript data, suggesting that Ets expression is regulated primarily at the transcriptional level. Similarly, Elf3, Pdef and Tel2 were overexpressed, while Elk3, Etsl and Flil were under-expressed in primary breast tumor specimens in comparison with normal mammary tissues.
Conclusions: Our study identified a subset of Ets genes with altered expression in breast carcinoma, implicating their roles in mammary tumorigenesis. While the Ets over-expression pattern is useful to uncover recurrent genetic alterations involving Ets genes, the repressed expression of several Ets genes suggests that some Ets proteins may play suppressor roles during breast cancer progression. Our results warrant detailed studies of individual Ets activity during mammary gland neoplasia.