Introduction: A common feature of neoplastic cells is that mutations in SMADs can contribute to the loss of sensitivity to the anti-tumor effects of transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β). However, germline mutation analysis of SMAD3 and SMAD4, the principle substrates of the TGF-β signaling pathway, has not yet been conducted in breast cancer. Thus, it is currently unknown whether germline SMAD3 and SMAD4 mutations are involved in breast cancer predisposition.
Methods: We performed mutation analysis of the highly conserved mad-homology 2 (MH2) domains for both genes in genomic DNA from 408 non-BRCA1/BRCA2 breast cancer cases and 710 population controls recruited by the Ontario site of the breast cancer family registry (CFR) using denaturing high-performance liquid chromatography (DHPLC) and direct DNA sequencing. The results were interpreted in several ways. First, we adapted nucleotide diversity analysis to quantitatively assess whether the frequency of alterations differ between the two genes. Next, in silico tools were used to predict variants' effect on domain function and mRNA splicing. Finally, 37 cases or controls harboring alterations were tested for aberrant splicing using reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and real-time PCR statistical comparison of germline expressions by non-parametric Mann-Whitney test of independent samples.
Results: We identified 27 variants including 2 novel SMAD4 coding variants c.1350G > A (p.Gln450Gln), and c.1701A > G (p.Ile525Val). There were no inactivating mutations even though c.1350G > A was predicted to affect exonic splicing enhancers. However, several additional findings were of note: 1) nucleotide diversity estimate for SMAD3 but not SMAD4 indicated that coding variants of the MH2 domain were more infrequent than expected; 2) in breast cancer cases SMAD3 was significantly over-expressed relative to controls (P < 0.05) while the case harboring SMAD4 c.1350G > A was associated with elevated germline expression (> 5-fold); 3) separate analysis using tissue expression data showed statistically significant over-expression of SMAD3 and SMAD4 in breast carcinomas.
Conclusions: This study shows that inactivating germline alterations in SMAD3 and SMAD4 are rare, suggesting a limited role in driving tumorigenesis. Nevertheless, aberrant germline expressions of SMAD3 and SMAD4 may be more common in breast cancer than previously suspected and offer novel insight into their roles in predisposition and/or progression of breast cancer.