Cancer stem cells are thought to be responsible for tumor growth, recurrence, and resistance to conventional cancer therapy. However, it is still unclear how they are maintained in tumor tissues. Here, we show that the growth differentiation factor 15 (GDF15), a member of the TGFβ family, may maintain cancer stem-like cells in breast cancer tissues by inducing its own expression in an autocrine/paracrine manner. We found that GDF15, but not TGFβ, increased tumor sphere formation in several breast cancer cell lines and patient-derived primary breast cancer cells. As expected, TGFβ strongly stimulated the phosphorylation of Smad2. GDF15 also stimulated the phosphorylation of Smad2, but the GDF15-induced tumor sphere forming efficiency was not significantly affected by treatment with SB431542, an inhibitor of the TGFβ signaling. Although TGFβ transiently activated ERK1/2, GDF15 induced prolonged activation of ERK1/2. Treatment with U0126, an inhibitor of the MEK-ERK1/2 signaling, greatly inhibited the GDF15-induced tumor sphere formation. Moreover, cytokine array experiments revealed that GDF15, but not TGFβ, is able to induce its own expression; furthermore, it appears to form an autocrine/paracrine circuit to continuously produce GDF15. In addition, we found heterogeneous expression levels of GDF15 among cancer cells and in human breast cancer tissues using immunohistochemistry. This may reflect a heterogeneous cancer cell population, including cancer stem-like cells and other cancer cells. Our findings suggest that GDF15 induces tumor sphere formation through GDF15-ERK1/2-GDF15 circuits, leading to maintenance of GDF15high cancer stem-like cells. Targeting GDF15 to break these circuits should contribute to the eradication of tumors.
Keywords: ERK; TGFbeta; breast cancer; cancer stem cells; tumor spheres.