FOXA1 represses the molecular phenotype of basal breast cancer cells

Oncogene. 2013 Jan 31;32(5):554-63. doi: 10.1038/onc.2012.62. Epub 2012 Mar 5.


Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease that comprises multiple subtypes. Luminal subtype tumors confer a more favorable patient prognosis, which is, in part, attributed to estrogen receptor (ER)-α positivity and antihormone responsiveness. Expression of the forkhead box transcription factor, FOXA1, similarly correlates with the luminal subtype and patient survival, but is also present in a subset of ER-negative tumors. FOXA1 is also consistently expressed in luminal breast cancer cell lines even in the absence of ER. In contrast, breast cancer cell lines representing the basal subtype do not express FOXA1. To delineate an ER-independent role for FOXA1 in maintaining the luminal phenotype, and hence a more favorable prognosis, we performed expression microarray analyses on FOXA1-positive and ER-positive (MCF7, T47D), or FOXA1-positive and ER-negative (MDA-MB-453, SKBR3) luminal cell lines in the presence or absence of transient FOXA1 silencing. This resulted in three FOXA1 transcriptomes: (1) a luminal signature (consistent across cell lines), (2) an ER-positive signature (restricted to MCF7 and T47D) and (3) an ER-negative signature (restricted to MDA-MB-453 and SKBR3). Gene set enrichment analyses revealed FOXA1 silencing causes a partial transcriptome shift from luminal to basal gene expression signatures. FOXA1 binds to a subset of both luminal and basal genes within luminal breast cancer cells, and loss of FOXA1 increases enhancer RNA transcription for a representative basal gene (CD58). These data suggest FOXA1 directly represses a subset of basal signature genes. Functionally, FOXA1 silencing increases migration and invasion of luminal cancer cells, both of which are characteristics of basal subtype cells. We conclude FOXA1 controls plasticity between basal and luminal breast cancer cells, not only by inducing luminal genes but also by repressing the basal phenotype, and thus aggressiveness. Although it has been proposed that FOXA1-targeting agents may be useful for treating luminal tumors, these data suggest that this approach may promote transitions toward more aggressive cancers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 3-alpha / genetics
  • Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 3-alpha / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Basal Cell / metabolism*
  • Phenotype
  • Prognosis
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism


  • FOXA1 protein, human
  • Hepatocyte Nuclear Factor 3-alpha
  • Receptors, Estrogen