Background: Breast cancer is the most common neoplasia in women. Even though advances in its treatment have improved disease outcome, some patients relapse. Therefore, attempts to better define the molecular determinants that drive breast cancer cell proliferation may help in defining potential therapeutic targets. Mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) play important roles in tumorigenesis. One of them, Erk5, has been linked to the proliferation of breast cancer cells in vitro. Here we have investigated the expression and prognostic value of Erk5 in human breast cancer.
Methodology/principal findings: Animal and cellular models were used to study Erk5 expression and function in breast cancer. In 84 human breast tumours the expression of Erk5 was analyzed by immunohistochemistry. Active Erk5 (pErk5) was studied by Western blotting. Correlation of Erk5 with clinicopathological parameters and with disease-free survival in early stage breast cancer patients was analyzed. Expression of Erk5 was detected in most patients, and overexpression was found in 20%. Active Erk5 was present in a substantial number of samples, as well as in tumours from an animal breast cancer model. Overexpression of Erk5 was associated with a decrease in disease-free survival time, which was independent of other clinicopathological parameters of prognosis. Transient transfection of a short hairpin RNA (shRNA) targeting Erk5, and a stable cell line expressing a dominant negative form of Erk5 (Erk5(AEF)), were used to investigate the influence of Erk5 on drugs used in the clinic to treat breast tumours. We found that inhibition of Erk5 decreased cancer cell proliferation and also sensitized these cells to the action of anti-HER2 therapies.
Conclusions/significance: Overexpression of Erk5 is an independent predictor of disease-free survival in breast cancer, and may represent a future therapeutic target.