Background: De-regulation of the wingless and integration site growth factor (WNT) signaling pathway via mutations in APC and Axin, proteins that target beta-catenin for destruction, have been linked to various types of human cancer. These genetic alterations rarely, if ever, are observed in breast tumors. However, various lines of evidence suggest that WNT signaling may also be de-regulated in breast cancer. Most breast tumors show hypermethylation of the promoter region of secreted Frizzled-related protein 1 (sFRP1), a negative WNT pathway regulator, leading to downregulation of its expression. As a consequence, WNT signaling is enhanced and may contribute to proliferation of human breast tumor cells. We previously demonstrated that, in addition to the canonical WNT/beta-catenin pathway, WNT signaling activates the extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2) pathway in mouse mammary epithelial cells via epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) transactivation.
Methods: Using the WNT modulator sFRP1 and short interfering RNA-mediated Dishevelled (DVL) knockdown, we interfered with autocrine WNT signaling at the ligand-receptor level. The impact on proliferation was measured by cell counting, YOPRO, and the MTT (3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyl-tetrazolium bromide) assay; beta-catenin, EGFR, ERK1/2 activation, and PARP (poly [ADP-ribose]polymerase) cleavages were assessed by Western blotting after treatment of human breast cancer cell lines with conditioned media, purified proteins, small-molecule inhibitors, or blocking antibodies.
Results: Phospho-DVL and stabilized beta-catenin are present in many breast tumor cell lines, indicating autocrine WNT signaling activity. Interfering with this loop decreases active beta-catenin levels, lowers ERK1/2 activity, blocks proliferation, and induces apoptosis in MDA-MB-231, BT474, SkBr3, JIMT-1, and MCF-7 cells. The effects of WNT signaling are mediated partly by EGFR transactivation in human breast cancer cells in a metalloprotease- and Src-dependent manner. Furthermore, Wnt1 rescues estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer cells from the anti-proliferative effects of 4-hydroxytamoxifen (4-HT) and this activity can be blocked by an EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor.
Conclusion: Our data show that interference with autocrine WNT signaling in human breast cancer reduces proliferation and survival of human breast cancer cells and rescues ER+ tumor cells from 4-HT by activation of the canonical WNT pathway and EGFR transactivation. These findings suggest that interference with WNT signaling at the ligand-receptor level in combination with other targeted therapies may improve the efficiency of breast cancer treatments.