Cystine addiction of triple-negative breast cancer associated with EMT augmented death signaling

Oncogene. 2017 Jul 27;36(30):4235-4242. doi: 10.1038/onc.2016.394. Epub 2016 Nov 21.


Despite the advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, breast cancers still cause significant mortality. For some patients, especially those with triple-negative breast cancer, current treatments continue to be limited and ineffective. Therefore, there remains an unmet need for a novel therapeutic approach. One potential strategy is to target the altered metabolic state that is rewired by oncogenic transformation. Specifically, this rewiring may render certain outside nutrients indispensable. To identify such a nutrient, we performed a nutrigenetic screen by removing individual amino acids to identify possible addictions across a panel of breast cancer cells. This screen revealed that cystine deprivation triggered rapid programmed necrosis, but not apoptosis, in the basal-type breast cancer cells mostly seen in TNBC tumors. In contrast, luminal-type breast cancer cells are cystine-independent and exhibit little death during cystine deprivation. The cystine addiction phenotype is associated with a higher level of cystine-deprivation signatures noted in the basal type breast cancer cells and tumors. We found that the cystine-addicted breast cancer cells and tumors have strong activation of TNFα and MEKK4-p38-Noxa pathways that render them susceptible to cystine deprivation-induced necrosis. Consistent with this model, silencing of TNFα and MEKK4 dramatically reduces cystine-deprived death. In addition, the cystine addiction phenotype can be abrogated in the cystine-addictive cells by miR-200c, which converts the mesenchymal-like cells to adopt epithelial features. Conversely, the introduction of inducers of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in cystine-independent breast cancer cells conferred the cystine-addiction phenotype by modulating the signaling components of cystine addiction. Together, our data reveal that cystine-addiction is associated with EMT in breast cancer during tumor progression. These findings provide the genetic and mechanistic basis to explain how cystine deprivation triggers necrosis by activating pre-existing oncogenic pathways in cystine-addicted TNBC with prominent mesenchymal features.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Necrosis / metabolism
  • Phenotype
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / pathology*


  • Cysteine