Novel role of Engrailed 1 as a prosurvival transcription factor in basal-like breast cancer and engineering of interference peptides block its oncogenic function

Oncogene. 2014 Sep 25;33(39):4767-77. doi: 10.1038/onc.2013.422. Epub 2013 Oct 21.


Basal-like breast tumors are aggressive cancers associated with high proliferation and metastasis. Chemotherapy is currently the only treatment option; however, resistance often occurs resulting in recurrence and patient death. Some extremely aggressive cancers are also associated with hypoxia, inflammation and high leukocyte infiltration. Herein, we discovered that the neural-specific transcription factor, Engrailed 1 (EN1), is exclusively overexpressed in these tumors. Short hairpin RNA (shRNA)-mediated knockdown of EN1 triggered potent and selective cell death. In contrast, ectopic overexpression of EN1 in normal cells activated survival pathways and conferred resistance to chemotherapeutic agents. Exogenous expression of EN1 cDNA reprogrammed the breast epithelial cells toward a long-lived, neural-like phenotype displaying dopaminergic markers. Gene expression microarrays demonstrated that the EN1 cDNA altered transcription of a high number of inflammatory molecules, notably chemokines and chemokine receptors, which could mediate prosurvival pathways. To block EN1 function, we engineered synthetic interference peptides (iPeps) comprising the EN1-specific sequences that mediate essential protein-protein interactions necessary for EN1 function and an N-terminal cell-penetrating peptide/nuclear localization sequence. These EN1-iPeps rapidly mediated a strong apoptotic response in tumor cells overexpressing EN1, with no toxicity to normal or non EN1-expressing cells. Delivery of EN1-iPeps into basal-like cancer cells significantly decreased the fifty percent inhibitory concentrations (IC50) of chemotherapeutic drugs routinely used to treat breast cancer. Lastly, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization-time of flight mass spectrometry and immunoprecipitation assays demonstrated that EN1-iPeps captured targets involved in transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulation. Importantly, the EN1-iPeps bound the glutamyl-prolyl tRNA synthetase (EPRS) target, which has been associated with the transcript-specific translational control of inflammatory proteins and activation of amino-acid stress pathways. This work unveils EN1 as an activator of intrinsic inflammatory pathways associated with prosurvival in basal-like breast cancer. We further build upon these results and describe the engineering of iPeps targeting EN1 (EN1-iPeps) as a novel and selective therapeutic strategy to combat these lethal forms of breast cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Antineoplastic Agents / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides / metabolism
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides / pharmacology
  • Drug Screening Assays, Antitumor
  • Female
  • Homeodomain Proteins / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inhibitory Concentration 50
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms, Basal Cell / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms, Basal Cell / mortality
  • Neoplasms, Basal Cell / pathology
  • Peptides / metabolism
  • Peptides / pharmacology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides
  • EN1 protein, human
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Peptides
  • iPep624