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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Oct 4;108(40):E803-12. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103423108. Epub 2011 Aug 22.

Intersection of FOXO- and RUNX1-mediated gene expression programs in single breast epithelial cells during morphogenesis and tumor progression.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA.


Gene expression networks are complicated by the assortment of regulatory factors that bind DNA and modulate transcription combinatorially. Single-cell measurements can reveal biological mechanisms hidden by population averages, but their value has not been fully explored in the context of mRNA regulation. Here, we adapted a single-cell expression profiling technique to examine the gene expression program downstream of Forkhead box O (FOXO) transcription factors during 3D breast epithelial acinar morphogenesis. By analyzing patterns of mRNA fluctuations among individual matrix-attached epithelial cells, we found that a subset of FOXO target genes was jointly regulated by the transcription factor Runt-related transcription factor 1 (RUNX1). Knockdown of RUNX1 causes hyperproliferation and abnormal morphogenesis, both of which require normal FOXO function. Down-regulating RUNX1 and FOXOs simultaneously causes widespread oxidative stress, which arrests proliferation and restores normal acinar morphology. In hormone-negative breast cancers lacking human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) amplification, we find that RUNX1 down-regulation is strongly associated with up-regulation of FOXO1, which may be required to support growth of RUNX1-negative tumors. The coordinate function of these two tumor suppressors may provide a failsafe mechanism that inhibits cancer progression.

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