The bone microenvironment increases phenotypic plasticity of ER+ breast cancer cells

Dev Cell. 2021 Apr 19;56(8):1100-1117.e9. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2021.03.008.


Estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer exhibits a strong bone tropism in metastasis. How the bone microenvironment (BME) impacts ER signaling and endocrine therapy remains poorly understood. Here, we discover that the osteogenic niche transiently and reversibly reduces ER expression and activities specifically in bone micrometastases (BMMs), leading to endocrine resistance. As BMMs progress, the ER reduction and endocrine resistance may partially recover in cancer cells away from the osteogenic niche, creating phenotypic heterogeneity in macrometastases. Using multiple approaches, including an evolving barcoding strategy, we demonstrated that this process is independent of clonal selection, and represents an EZH2-mediated epigenomic reprogramming. EZH2 drives ER+ BMMs toward a basal and stem-like state. EZH2 inhibition reverses endocrine resistance. These data exemplify how epigenomic adaptation to BME promotes phenotypic plasticity of metastatic seeds, fosters intra-metastatic heterogeneity, and alters therapeutic responses. Our study provides insights into the clinical enigma of ER+ metastatic recurrences despite endocrine therapies.

Keywords: FGFR/EZH2 axis; barcoding; bone metastasis; bone tropism; chromatin alteration; clonal evolution; endocrine resistance; epigenomic reprogramming; osteogenic cells; stemness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Bone Neoplasms / secondary
  • Bone and Bones / pathology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Communication
  • Clonal Evolution
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Down-Regulation
  • Enhancer of Zeste Homolog 2 Protein / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gap Junctions / metabolism
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Mice
  • Neoplasm Micrometastasis
  • Osteogenesis
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tumor Microenvironment*


  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • EZH2 protein, human
  • Enhancer of Zeste Homolog 2 Protein