Introduction: Treatment of breast cancer is becoming more individualized with the recognition of tumor subgroups that respond differently to available therapies. Breast cancer 1 gene (BRCA1)-deficient tumors are usually of the basal subtype and associated with poor survival rates, highlighting the need for more effective therapy.
Methods: We investigated a mouse model that closely mimics breast cancer arising in BRCA1-mutation carriers to better understand the molecular mechanism of tumor progression and tested whether targeting of the Polycomb-group protein EZH2 would be a putative therapy for BRCA1-deficient tumors.
Results: Gene expression analysis demonstrated that EZH2 is overexpressed in BRCA1-deficient mouse mammary tumors. By immunohistochemistry we show that an increase in EZH2 protein levels is also evident in tumors from BRCA1-mutation carriers. EZH2 is responsible for repression of genes driving differentiation and could thus be involved in the undifferentiated phenotype of these tumors. Importantly, we show that BRCA1-deficient cancer cells are selectively dependent on their elevated EZH2 levels. In addition, a chemical inhibitor of EZH2, 3-deazaneplanocin A (DZNep), is about 20-fold more effective in killing BRCA1-deficient cells compared to BRCA1-proficient mammary tumor cells.
Conclusions: We demonstrate by specific knock-down experiments that EZH2 overexpression is functionally relevant in BRCA1-deficient breast cancer cells. The effectiveness of a small molecule inhibitor indicates that EZH2 is a druggable target. The overexpression of EZH2 in all basal-like breast cancers warrants further investigation of the potential for targeting the genetic make-up of this particular breast cancer type.