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Oncogene. 2013 May 2;32(18):2261-72, 2272e.1-11. doi: 10.1038/onc.2012.252. Epub 2012 Jun 25.

Beclin 1 and autophagy are required for the tumorigenicity of breast cancer stem-like/progenitor cells.

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INSERM U984, Faculté de Pharmacie, Chatenay Malabry, France.


Malignant breast tissue contains a rare population of multi-potent cells with the capacity to self-renew; these cells are known as cancer stem-like cells (CSCs) or tumor-initiating cells. Primitive mammary CSCs/progenitor cells can be propagated in culture as floating spherical colonies termed 'mammospheres'. We show here that the expression of the autophagy protein Beclin 1 is higher in mammospheres established from human breast cancers or breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7 and BT474) than in the parental adherent cells. As a result, autophagic flux is more robust in mammospheres. We observed that basal and starvation-induced autophagy flux is also higher in aldehyde dehydrogenase 1-positive (ALDH1(+)) population derived from mammospheres than in the bulk population. Beclin 1 is critical for CSC maintenance and tumor development in nude mice, whereas its expression limits the development of tumors not enriched with breast CSCs/progenitor cells. We found that decreased survival in autophagy-deficient cells (MCF-7 Atg7 knockdown cells) during detachment does not contribute to an ultimate deficiency in mammosphere formation. This study demonstrates that a prosurvival autophagic pathway is critical for CSC maintenance, and that Beclin 1 plays a dual role in tumor development.

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