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Oncogene. 2012 May 3;31(18):2283-97. doi: 10.1038/onc.2011.417. Epub 2011 Sep 19.

Non-canonical HIF-2α function drives autonomous breast cancer cell growth via an AREG-EGFR/ErbB4 autocrine loop.

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Institute of Physiology and Zürich Center for Human Physiology (ZIHP), University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.


Tumor progression is intrinsically tied to the clonal selection of tumor cells with acquired phenotypes allowing to cope with a hostile microenvironment. Hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) master the transcriptional response to local tissue hypoxia, a hallmark of solid tumors. Here, we report significantly longer patient survival in breast cancer with high levels of HIF-2α. Amphiregulin (AREG) and WNT1-inducible signaling pathway protein-2 (WISP2) expression was strongly HIF-2α-dependent and their promoters were particularly responsive to HIF-2α. The endogenous AREG promoter recruited HIF-2α in the absence of a classical HIF-DNA interaction motif, revealing a novel mechanism of gene regulation. Loss of AREG expression in HIF-2α-depleted cells was accompanied by reduced activation of epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor family members. Apparently opposing results from patient and in vitro data point to an HIF-2α-dependent auto-stimulatory tumor phenotype that, while promoting EGF signaling in cellular models, increased the survival of diagnosed and treated human patients. Our findings suggest a model where HIF-2α-mediated autocrine growth signaling in breast cancer sustains a state of cellular self-sufficiency, thereby masking unfavorable microenvironmental growth conditions, limiting adverse selection and improving therapy efficacy. Importantly, HIF-2α/AREG/WISP2-expressing tumors were associated with luminal tumor differentiation, indicative of a better response to classical treatments. Shifting the HIF-1/2α balance toward an HIF-2-dominated phenotype could thus offer a novel approach in breast cancer therapy.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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