TRAIL induces apoptosis in triple-negative breast cancer cells with a mesenchymal phenotype

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2009 Jan;113(2):217-30. doi: 10.1007/s10549-008-9924-5. Epub 2008 Feb 12.


Tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) induces apoptosis in some but not all breast cancer cell lines. Breast cancers can be divided into those which express the estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR) receptors, those with HER-2 amplification, and those without expression of ER, PR, or HER-2 amplification (referred to as basal or triple-negative breast cancer). We tested a panel of 20 breast cancer cell lines representing the different types of breast cancer to evaluate if the molecular phenotype of the breast cancer cells determined their response to TRAIL. The most striking finding was that eight of eleven triple-negative cell lines are sensitive to TRAIL-mediated apoptosis. The eight TRAIL-sensitive triple-negative cell lines have a mesenchymal phenotype while the three TRAIL-resistant triple-negative cell lines have an epithelial phenotype. Two of five cell lines with HER-2 amplification were sensitive to TRAIL and none of the five ER positive cell lines were sensitive. RNAi-mediated knockdown of TRAIL receptor expression demonstrated that TRAIL Receptor 2 (TRAIL-R2) mediates the effects of TRAIL, even when both TRAIL-R1 and TRAIL-R2 are expressed. Finally, inhibition of EGFR, expressed in both TRAIL-sensitive and TRAIL-resistant triple-negative breast cancer cell lines, using a small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor (AG1478), enhanced TRAIL-induced apoptosis in TRAIL-sensitive cell lines but did not convert resistant cells into TRAIL-sensitive cells. Together, these findings suggest that a subset of triple-negative breast cancer, those with mesenchymal features, may be the most likely to benefit from TRAIL targeted therapy. These findings could form the basis to select breast cancer patients for clinical trials of TRAIL-R2 ligands.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Breast Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Breast Neoplasms / classification
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor / chemistry
  • Cell Line, Tumor / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor / pathology
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Epithelium
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • ErbB Receptors / physiology
  • Female
  • Genes, erbB-2
  • Humans
  • Mesoderm
  • Neoplasm Proteins / analysis
  • Phenotype
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Quinazolines
  • RNA Interference
  • Receptors, Estrogen / analysis
  • Receptors, Progesterone / analysis
  • Receptors, TNF-Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand / drug effects
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / pharmacology*
  • Tyrphostins / pharmacology


  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Quinazolines
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Receptors, Progesterone
  • Receptors, TNF-Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • Tyrphostins
  • RTKI cpd
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors