Mammospheres of letrozole-resistant breast cancer cells enhance breast cancer aggressiveness

Oncol Lett. 2021 Aug;22(2):620. doi: 10.3892/ol.2021.12881. Epub 2021 Jun 28.


Aromatase inhibitors (AIs), such as letrozole, are considered as first-line treatment for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Despite the successful use of letrozole, resistance to therapy, tumor relapse and metastasis remain principal causes of patient mortality. Although there is no therapy currently available for AI-resistant breast cancer, previous reports have demonstrated that AI resistance is associated with hormone independence, increased growth factor signaling, enhanced cellular motility and epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). This suggests a convergence of EMT and cancer stem cells (CSCs) in endocrine resistance. The present study evaluated the contribution of mammospheres in letrozole-resistant breast cancer by characterizing mammospheres and their potential impact on cellular motility. Ovariectomized immunocompromised female mice were inoculated in the mammary fat pad with either letrozole-resistant MCF-7 cells (LTLT-Ca) or letrozole-sensitive MCF-7 cells (AC-1). Subsequently, intratumoral CSC marker expression was assessed by immunohistochemistry. The results indicated that LTLT-Ca tumors were CD44+/CD24+, while AC-1 tumors presented low CD44/CD24 expression. Since mammosphere formation depends on CSCs, both cell lines were cultured either adherently (2D) or as mammospheres (3D) to assess the CD44/CD24 protein expression profile. When 3D culturing both cell lines, higher expression levels of CD44 and CD24 were observed when compared with their adherent counterparts, with the most robust change observed in the LTLT-Ca cell line. To quantitate the breast cancer stem cell activity, mammosphere formation assays were performed, and the LTLT-Ca cells formed mammospheres at a 3.4-fold higher index compared with AC-1 cells. Additionally, targeted gene expression arrays were conducted to compare the LTLT-Ca 3D and 2D cells, revealing that LTLT-Ca 3D cells displayed decreased expression levels of genes involved in cell adhesion and tumor suppression (e. g., E-cadherin, caveolin 1 and β-catenin). To validate this finding, wound healing assays were performed, and LTLT-Ca mammospheres exhibited a 70% wound closure, whereas AC-1 mammospheres exhibited a 39% wound closure. Collectively, the present findings demonstrated a strong association between AI-resistant mammospheres and an increased propensity for migration, which may be indicative of a poor prognosis.

Keywords: CD24; CD44; aromatase inhibitors; breast cancer; cancer stem cells; epithelial to mesenchymal transition; letrozole resistance; mammospheres.