Rationale: Alternative therapeutic strategies based on tumor-specific molecular targets are urgently needed for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). The protease cathepsin D (cath-D) is a marker of poor prognosis in TNBC and a tumor-specific extracellular target for antibody-based therapy. The identification of cath-D substrates is crucial for the mechanistic understanding of its role in the TNBC microenvironment and future therapeutic developments. Methods: The cath-D substrate repertoire was investigated by N-Terminal Amine Isotopic Labeling of Substrates (TAILS)-based degradome analysis in a co-culture assay of TNBC cells and breast fibroblasts. Substrates were validated by amino-terminal oriented mass spectrometry of substrates (ATOMS). Cath-D and SPARC expression in TNBC was examined using an online transcriptomic survival analysis, tissue micro-arrays, TNBC cell lines, patient-derived xenografts (PDX), human TNBC samples, and mammary tumors from MMTV-PyMT Ctsd-/- knock-out mice. The biological role of SPARC and its fragments in TNBC were studied using immunohistochemistry and immunofluorescence analysis, gene expression knockdown, co-culture assays, western blot analysis, RT-quantitative PCR, adhesion assays, Transwell motility, trans-endothelial migration and invasion assays. Results: TAILS analysis showed that the matricellular protein SPARC is a substrate of extracellular cath-D. In vitro, cath-D induced limited proteolysis of SPARC C-terminal extracellular Ca2+ binding domain at acidic pH, leading to the production of SPARC fragments (34-, 27-, 16-, 9-, and 6-kDa). Similarly, cath-D secreted by TNBC cells cleaved fibroblast- and cancer cell-derived SPARC at the tumor pericellular acidic pH. SPARC cleavage also occurred in TNBC tumors. Among these fragments, only the 9-kDa SPARC fragment inhibited TNBC cell adhesion and spreading on fibronectin, and stimulated their migration, endothelial transmigration, and invasion. Conclusions: Our study establishes a novel crosstalk between proteases and matricellular proteins in the tumor microenvironment through limited SPARC proteolysis, revealing a novel targetable 9-kDa bioactive SPARC fragment for new TNBC treatments. Our study will pave the way for the development of strategies for targeting bioactive fragments from matricellular proteins in TNBC.
Keywords: ECM; TNBC; bioactive fragment; matricellular protein; protease; tumor microenvironment.
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