Toll-like receptor 9 expression in breast and ovarian cancer is associated with poorly differentiated tumors

Cancer Sci. 2010 Apr;101(4):1059-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1349-7006.2010.01491.x. Epub 2010 Jan 12.


Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) activates the innate immune response when exposed to non-methylated CpG-DNA. TLR9 was recently shown to be expressed by cancer cells which have been previously characterized by global hypomethylation. We set out to examine the expression and molecular activity of TLR9 in breast and ovarian cancer cells. Firstly, we confirmed higher levels of hypomethylated DNA in the serum of patients with metastatic breast cancer (n = 18) versus age-matched tumor-free women (n = 18). In breast cancer cell lines and tissues, TLR9 mRNA expression was associated with estrogen-receptor (ER) status (n = 124, P = 0.005). Expression also correlated with increasing tumor grade in both breast (P = 0.03) and ovarian cancer specimens (n = 138, P = 0.04). Immunohistochemical analysis of formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded (FFPE) breast cancer tissues revealed higher TLR9 protein expression in hormone-receptor (HR)-negative specimens (n = 116, P < 0.001). Using an in vitro scratch assay, we observed that cell lines transfected to overexpress TLR9 demonstrated increased cellular migration when stimulated with CpG-DNA. When assessing the molecular activity of TLR9 in breast cancer, we found a strong positive correlation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappaB) activity with TLR9 mRNA expression (correlation coefficient r = 0.7, P < 0.001). Finally, immunofluorescence analysis of BT-20 and Hs578T breast cancer cell lines showed partial colocalizations of CpG-DNA with TLR9, which diminished when the cells were exposed to methylated CpG-DNA (mCpG-DNA) or control GpC-DNA. In summary we demonstrate that TLR9 expression is associated with poor differentiation in breast and ovarian cancer specimens, and that TLR9 overexpression and stimulation with hypomethylated DNA augments the migratory capacity of cancer cell lines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cell Movement
  • DNA Methylation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • NF-kappa B / genetics
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / genetics
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9 / biosynthesis
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9 / genetics
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9 / metabolism*
  • Transfection


  • NF-kappa B
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9