Introduction: Normal and malignant breast tissue contains a rare population of multi-potent cells with the capacity to self-renew, referred to as stem cells, or tumor initiating cells (TIC). These cells can be enriched by growth as "mammospheres" in three-dimensional cultures.
Objective: We tested the hypothesis that human bone-marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSC), which are known to support tumor growth and metastasis, increase mammosphere formation.
Results: We found that MSC increased human mammary epithelial cell (HMEC) mammosphere formation in a dose-dependent manner. A similar increase in sphere formation was seen in human inflammatory (SUM149) and non-inflammatory breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7) but not in primary inflammatory breast cancer cells (MDA-IBC-3). We determined that increased mammosphere formation can be mediated by secreted factors as MSC conditioned media from MSC spheroids significantly increased HMEC, MCF-7 and SUM149 mammosphere formation by 6.4 to 21-fold. Mammospheres grown in MSC conditioned media had lower levels of the cell adhesion protein, E-cadherin, and increased expression of N-cadherin in SUM149 and HMEC cells, characteristic of a pro-invasive mesenchymal phenotype. Co-injection with MSC in vivo resulted in a reduced latency time to develop detectable MCF-7 and MDA-IBC-3 tumors and increased the growth of MDA-IBC-3 tumors. Furthermore, E-cadherin expression was decreased in MDA-IBC-3 xenografts with co-injection of MSC.
Conclusions: MSC increase the efficiency of primary mammosphere formation in normal and malignant breast cells and decrease E-cadherin expression, a biologic event associated with breast cancer progression and resistance to therapy.