Background: Mutations in the estrogen receptor alpha (ERα) 1 gene (ESR1) are frequently detected in ER+ metastatic breast cancer, and there is increasing evidence that these mutations confer endocrine resistance in breast cancer patients with advanced disease. However, their functional role is not well-understood, at least in part due to a lack of ESR1 mutant models. Here, we describe the generation and characterization of genome-edited T47D and MCF7 breast cancer cell lines with the two most common ESR1 mutations, Y537S and D538G.
Methods: Genome editing was performed using CRISPR and adeno-associated virus (AAV) technologies to knock-in ESR1 mutations into T47D and MCF7 cell lines, respectively. Various techniques were utilized to assess the activity of mutant ER, including transactivation, growth and chromatin-immunoprecipitation (ChIP) assays. The level of endocrine resistance was tested in mutant cells using a number of selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) and degraders (SERDs). RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) was employed to study gene targets of mutant ER.
Results: Cells with ESR1 mutations displayed ligand-independent ER activity, and were resistant to several SERMs and SERDs, with cell line and mutation-specific differences with respect to magnitude of effect. The SERD AZ9496 showed increased efficacy compared to other drugs tested. Wild-type and mutant cell co-cultures demonstrated a unique evolution of mutant cells under estrogen deprivation and tamoxifen treatment. Transcriptome analysis confirmed ligand-independent regulation of ERα target genes by mutant ERα, but also identified novel target genes, some of which are involved in metastasis-associated phenotypes. Despite significant overlap in the ligand-independent genes between Y537S and D538G, the number of mutant ERα-target genes shared between the two cell lines was limited, suggesting context-dependent activity of the mutant receptor. Some genes and phenotypes were unique to one mutation within a given cell line, suggesting a mutation-specific effect.
Conclusions: Taken together, ESR1 mutations in genome-edited breast cancer cell lines confer ligand-independent growth and endocrine resistance. These biologically relevant models can be used for further mechanistic and translational studies, including context-specific and mutation site-specific analysis of the ESR1 mutations.
Keywords: ESR1 mutations; Endocrine resistance; Genome-edited cells; Metastatic breast cancer; RNA-seq.