Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a heterogeneous disease that lacks effective therapeutic options. In this study, we profile eighteen TNBC cell lines for their sensitivity to the anti-proliferative action of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). The only three cell lines (HCC-1599, MB-157 and MDA-MB-157) endowed with ATRA-sensitivity are characterized by genetic aberrations of the NOTCH1-gene, causing constitutive activation of the NOTCH1 γ-secretase product, N1ICD. N1ICD renders HCC-1599, MB-157 and MDA-MB-157 cells sensitive not only to ATRA, but also to γ-secretase inhibitors (DAPT; PF-03084014). Combinations of ATRA and γ-secretase inhibitors produce additive/synergistic effects in vitro and in vivo. RNA-sequencing studies of HCC-1599 and MB-157 cells exposed to ATRA and DAPT and ATRA+DAPT demonstrate that the two compounds act on common gene sets, some of which belong to the NOTCH1 pathway. ATRA inhibits the growth of HCC-1599, MB-157 and MDA-MB-157 cells via RARα, which up-regulates several retinoid target-genes, including RARβ. RARβ is a key determinant of ATRA anti-proliferative activity, as its silencing suppresses the effects exerted by the retinoid. In conclusion, we demonstrate that ATRA exerts a significant anti-tumor action only in TNBC cells showing constitutive NOTCH1 activation. Our results support the design of clinical trials involving combinations between ATRA and γ-secretase inhibitors for the treatment of this TNBC subtype.
Keywords: Notch1; RARbeta; breast cancer; retinoic acid; triple-negative.