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J Pathol. 2008 Jan;214(1):25-37.

The basal-like breast carcinoma phenotype is regulated by SLUG gene expression.

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Center for Applied Biomedical Research (CRBA), St Orsola-Malpighi Hospital, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy.


Basal-like breast carcinoma is an aggressive form of breast cancer, characterized by the absence of oestrogen receptor and HER2 expression, the presence of cytokeratin 5 and epidermal growth factor receptor expression, and by the up-regulation of stem cell regulatory genes. We show here that tumour tissues expressing high levels of SLUG mRNA show a basal-like breast carcinoma phenotype and that such tumours also express high levels of stem cell-regulatory genes, ie CD133, Bmi1. Further, we show that stem/progenitor cells, isolated from ductal breast carcinoma and from normal mammary gland as mammospheres, express SLUG, CD133, and Bmi1 mRNA and show a phenotype similar to that of basal-like breast carcinoma. We also report that SLUG expression in tumour tissues correlates with that of the hypoxia survival gene carbonic anhydrase IX. In this regard, we report that the exposure of SLUG-negative/luminal-like MCF-7 cells to a hypoxic environment promotes the onset of the basal-like breast carcinoma phenotype, together with up-regulation of the SLUG gene, which in turn blunts oestrogen receptor-alpha and boosts carbonic anhydrase IX gene expression. Finally, we show that SLUG expression promotes the invasiveness of MCF-7 cells exposed to hypoxia and sustains the in vivo aggressiveness of hypoxia-selected, MCF-7-derived cells in xenografts. These data indicate that SLUG gene expression is part of a hypoxia-induced genetic programme which sets up a basal/stem cell-like, aggressive phenotype in breast cancer cells.

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