Transforming growth factor-beta signaling: emerging stem cell target in metastatic breast cancer?

Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2009 Jun;115(3):453-95. doi: 10.1007/s10549-008-0184-1. Epub 2008 Oct 9.


In most human breast cancers, lowering of TGFbeta receptor- or Smad gene expression combined with increased levels of TGFbetas in the tumor microenvironment is sufficient to abrogate TGFbetas tumor suppressive effects and to induce a mesenchymal, motile and invasive phenotype. In genetic mouse models, TGFbeta signaling suppresses de novo mammary cancer formation but promotes metastasis of tumors that have broken through TGFbeta tumor suppression. In mouse models of "triple-negative" or basal-like breast cancer, treatment with TGFbeta neutralizing antibodies or receptor kinase inhibitors strongly inhibits development of lung- and bone metastases. These TGFbeta antagonists do not significantly affect tumor cell proliferation or apoptosis. Rather, they de-repress anti-tumor immunity, inhibit angiogenesis and reverse the mesenchymal, motile, invasive phenotype characteristic of basal-like and HER2-positive breast cancer cells. Patterns of TGFbeta target genes upregulation in human breast cancers suggest that TGFbeta may drive tumor progression in estrogen-independent cancer, while it mediates a suppressive host cell response in estrogen-dependent luminal cancers. In addition, TGFbeta appears to play a key role in maintaining the mammary epithelial (cancer) stem cell pool, in part by inducing a mesenchymal phenotype, while differentiated, estrogen receptor-positive, luminal cells are unresponsive to TGFbeta because the TGFBR2 receptor gene is transcriptionally silent. These same cells respond to estrogen by downregulating TGFbeta, while antiestrogens act by upregulating TGFbeta. This model predicts that inhibiting TGFbeta signaling should drive the differentiation of mammary stem cells into ductal cells. Consequently, TGFbeta antagonists may convert basal-like or HER2-positive cancers to a more epithelioid, non-proliferating (and, perhaps, non-metastatic) phenotype. Conversely, these agents might antagonize the therapeutic effects of anti-estrogens in estrogen-dependent luminal cancers. These predictions need to be addressed prospectively in clinical trials and should inform the selection of patient populations most likely to benefit from this novel anti-metastatic therapeutic approach.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Humans
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism*


  • Transforming Growth Factor beta