Background: The T-cell inhibitory molecule PD-L1 (B7-H1, CD274) is expressed on tumor cells of a subset of breast cancer patients. However, the mechanism that regulates PD-L1 expression in this group of patients is still not well-identified.
Methods: We have used loss and gain of function gene manipulation approach, multi-parametric flow cytometry, large scale gene expression dataset analysis and immunohistochemistry of breast cancer tissue sections.
Results: Induction of epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) in human mammary epithelial cells upregulated PD-L1 expression, which was dependent mainly on the activation of the PI3K/AKT pathway. Interestingly, gene expression signatures available from large cohort of breast tumors showed a significant correlation between EMT score and the PD-L1 mRNA level (p < 0.001). Strikingly, very strong association (p < 0.0001) was found between PD-L1 expression and claudin-low subset of breast cancer, which is known to have high EMT score. On the protein level, significant correlation was found between PD-L1 expression and standard markers of EMT (p = 0.005) in 67 breast cancer patients. Importantly, specific downregulation of PD-L1 in claudin-low breast cancer cells showed signs of EMT reversal as manifested by CD44 and Vimentin downregulation and CD24 upregulation.
Conclusions: We have demonstrated a bidirectional effect between EMT status and PD-L1 expression especially in claudin-low subtype of breast cancer cells. Our findings highlights the potential dual benefit of anti-PD-L1 particularly in this subset of breast cancer patients that will likely benefit more from anti-PD-L1 targeted therapy as well as in monitoring biological changes upon treatment.