Hybrid Stem Cell States: Insights Into the Relationship Between Mammary Development and Breast Cancer Using Single-Cell Transcriptomics

Front Cell Dev Biol. 2020 May 8;8:288. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2020.00288. eCollection 2020.


Similarities between stem cells and cancer cells have implicated mammary stem cells in breast carcinogenesis. Recent evidence suggests that normal breast stem cells exist in multiple phenotypic states: epithelial, mesenchymal, and hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal (E/M). Hybrid E/M cells in particular have been implicated in breast cancer metastasis and poor prognosis. Mounting evidence also suggests that stem cell phenotypes change throughout the life course, for example, through embryonic development and pregnancy. The goal of this study was to use single cell RNA-sequencing to quantify cell state distributions of the normal mammary (NM) gland throughout developmental stages and when perturbed into a stem-like state in vitro using conditional reprogramming (CR). Using machine learning based dataset alignment, we integrate multiple mammary gland single cell RNA-seq datasets from human and mouse, along with bulk RNA-seq data from breast tumors in the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), to interrogate hybrid stem cell states in the normal mammary gland and cancer. CR of human mammary cells induces an expanded stem cell state, characterized by increased expression of embryonic stem cell associated genes. Alignment to a mouse single-cell transcriptome atlas spanning mammary gland development from in utero to adulthood revealed that NM cells align to adult mouse cells and CR cells align across the pseudotime trajectory with a stem-like population aligning to the embryonic mouse cells. Three hybrid populations emerge after CR that are rare in NM: KRT18+/KRT14+ (hybrid luminal/basal), EPCAM+/VIM+ (hybrid E/M), and a quadruple positive population, expressing all four markers. Pseudotime analysis and alignment to the mouse developmental trajectory revealed that E/M hybrids are the most developmentally immature. Analyses of single cell mouse mammary RNA-seq throughout pregnancy show that during gestation, there is an enrichment of hybrid E/M cells, suggesting that these cells play an important role in mammary morphogenesis during lactation. Finally, pseudotime analysis and alignment of TCGA breast cancer expression data revealed that breast cancer subtypes express distinct developmental signatures, with basal tumors representing the most "developmentally immature" phenotype. These results highlight phenotypic plasticity of normal mammary stem cells and provide insight into the relationship between hybrid cell populations, stemness, and cancer.

Keywords: breast cancer; epithelial; hybrid; mesenchymal; pregnancy; single-cell RNA sequencing; stem cells.