BRD4/nuclear PD-L1/RelB circuit is involved in the stemness of breast cancer cells

Cell Commun Signal. 2023 Nov 3;21(1):315. doi: 10.1186/s12964-023-01319-6.


Background: Breast cancer (BC) is the most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide. BC stem cells (BCSCs) have been known to be involved in the carcinogenesis of the breast and contribute to therapeutic resistance. The programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) expression of BC correlated with a poor prognosis. Immunotherapies that target PD-L1 have great potential and have been successful when applied to cancer treatment. However, whether PD-L1 regulates BCSC formation is unknown.

Methods: BCSCs were enriched by serum-free suspension culture. The properties of BCSCs were examined by mammosphere formation assay, CD44+/Cd24-, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) assay, CSC marker analysis, and mammosphere growth assay. To elucidate the functions of bromodomain-containing protein 4 (BRD4), nuclear PD-L1, and RelB proteins in the stemness of BCSCs, mammosphere formation was examined using BRD4 inhibitor and degrader, PD-L1 degrader, and RelB inhibitor. The antitumor function of 3',4',7,8-tetrahydroxyflavone (THF), a specific BRD4 inhibitor, was studied through in vivo tumor model and mouse studies, and the protein levels of c-Myc, PD-L1, and RelB were examined in tumor model under THF treatment.

Results: BRD4 was upregulated in breast CSCs and regulates the stemness of BCs. The downregulation of BRD4 using BRD4 PROTAC, ARV-825, and BRD4 inhibitor, (+)-JQ1, inhibits mammosphere formation and reduces the levels of breast CSC markers (CD44+/CD24- and ALDH1), stem cell marker genes, and mammosphere growth. BRD4 inhibitor (JQ1) and degrader (ARV825) downregulate membrane and nuclear fractions of PD-L1 through the inhibition of PD-L1 transcript levels. The knockdown of PD-L1 inhibits mammosphere formation. Verteporfin, a PD-L1 degrader, inhibits the transcripts and protein levels of PD-L1 and downregulates the transcript and protein levels of RelB. Calcitriol, a RelB inhibitor, and the knockdown of RelB using si-RelB regulate mammosphere formation through interleukin-6 (IL-6) expression. THF is a natural product and a potent selective BRD4 inhibitor, inhibits mammosphere formation, and reduces the levels of CD44+/CD24- and mammosphere growth by downregulating c-Myc, PD-L1, and RelB. 3',4',7,8-THF shows tumoricidal activity and increased levels of CD3+CD4+ and CD3+CD8+ T-cells in the tumor and tumor-draining lymph nodes (TDLNs) in the murine tumor model using 4T1 and MC38 cells.

Conclusions: The results show the first evidence of the essential role of the BRD4/nuclear PD-L1/RelB axis in breast CSC formation. The nuclear PD-L1 regulates RelB, and the RelB/p65 complex induces IL6 and breast CSC formation. Targeting nuclear PD-L1 represents a potential and novel tool for immunotherapies of intractable BC. Video Abstract.

Keywords: BRD4; Breast cancer stem cell; IL-6; Nuclear PD-L1; RelB.

Publication types

  • Video-Audio Media
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • B7-H1 Antigen / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / pathology
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism
  • Transcription Factors* / metabolism


  • Transcription Factors
  • CD274 protein, human
  • B7-H1 Antigen
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • BRD4 protein, human
  • Cell Cycle Proteins