FOXA1 upregulation promotes enhancer and transcriptional reprogramming in endocrine-resistant breast cancer

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Dec 26;116(52):26823-26834. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1911584116. Epub 2019 Dec 11.


Forkhead box A1 (FOXA1) is a pioneer factor that facilitates chromatin binding and function of lineage-specific and oncogenic transcription factors. Hyperactive FOXA1 signaling due to gene amplification or overexpression has been reported in estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer. However, the molecular mechanisms by which FOXA1 up-regulation promotes these processes and the key downstream targets of the FOXA1 oncogenic network remain elusive. Here, we demonstrate that FOXA1 overexpression in ER+ breast cancer cells drives genome-wide enhancer reprogramming to activate prometastatic transcriptional programs. Up-regulated FOXA1 employs superenhancers (SEs) to synchronize transcriptional reprogramming in endocrine-resistant breast cancer cells, reflecting an early embryonic development process. We identify the hypoxia-inducible transcription factor hypoxia-inducible factor-2α (HIF-2α) as the top high FOXA1-induced SE target, mediating the impact of high FOXA1 in activating prometastatic gene sets and pathways associated with poor clinical outcome. Using clinical ER+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer datasets, we show that the aberrant FOXA1/HIF-2α transcriptional axis is largely nonconcurrent with the ESR1 mutations, suggesting different mechanisms of endocrine resistance and treatment strategies. We further demonstrate the selective efficacy of an HIF-2α antagonist, currently in clinical trials for advanced kidney cancer and recurrent glioblastoma, in reducing the clonogenicity, migration, and invasion of endocrine-resistant breast cancer cells expressing high FOXA1. Our study has uncovered high FOXA1-induced enhancer reprogramming and HIF-2α-dependent transcriptional programs as vulnerable targets for treating endocrine-resistant and metastatic breast cancer.

Keywords: FOXA1; breast cancer; endocrine resistance; enhancer/transcriptional reprogramming; metastasis.