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Breast Cancer Res. 2016 Feb 26;18(1):26. doi: 10.1186/s13058-016-0686-4.

Mcl-1 confers protection of Her2-positive breast cancer cells to hypoxia: therapeutic implications.

Author information

Department of Medical Oncology, National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT), University of Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld #460, Heidelberg, 69120, Germany.
Department of Pharmacology and Therapy, Faculty of Medicine, Universitas Padjadjaran, Jl. Eijkman 38, Bandung, 02215, Indonesia.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Avenue, Boston, MA, 02215, USA.
Eutropics, Inc., 767C Concord Avenue, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA.
German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Im Neuenheimer Feld 460, 69120, Heidelberg, Germany.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN, 38105, USA.
Department of Medical Oncology, National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT), University of Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld #460, Heidelberg, 69120, Germany.



Molecular mechanisms leading to the adaptation of breast cancer (BC) cells to hypoxia are largely unknown. The anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family member myeloid cell leukemia-1 (Mcl-1) is frequently amplified in BC; and elevated Mcl-1 levels have been correlated with poor prognosis. Here we investigated the pathophysiologic role of Mcl-1 in Her2-positive BC cells under hypoxic conditions.


RNA interference and a novel small molecule inhibitor, EU-5346, were used to examine the role of Mcl-1 in Her2-positive BC cell lines and primary BC cells (sensitive or intrinsically resistant to Her2 inhibitors) under hypoxic conditions (using a hypoxic incubation chamber). Mechanisms-of-action were investigated by RT-PCR, mitochondrial isolation, as well as immunoprecipitation/blotting analysis, and microscopy. The specificity against Mcl-1 of the novel small molecule inhibitor EU5346 was verified in Mcl-1(Δ/null) versus Mcl-1(wt/wt) Murine Embryonic Fibroblasts (MEFs). Proliferation, survival, and spheroid formation were assessed in response to Mcl-1 and Her2 inhibition.


We demonstrate for a strong correlation between high Mcl-1 protein levels and hypoxia, predominantly in Her2-positive BC cells. Surprisingly, genetic depletion of Mcl-1 decreased Her2 and Hif-1α levels followed by inhibition of BC cell survival. In contrast, Mcl-1 protein levels were not downregulated after genetic depletion of Her2 indicating a regulatory role of Mcl-1 upstream of Her2. Indeed, Mcl-1 and Her2 co-localize within the mitochondrial fraction and form a Mcl-1/Her2- protein complex. Similar to genetically targeting Mcl-1 the novel small molecule Mcl-1 inhibitor EU-5346 induced cell death and decreased spheroid formation in Her2-positive BC cells. Of interest, EU-5346 induced ubiquitination of Mcl-1- bound Her2 demonstrating a previously unknown role for Mcl-1 to stabilize Her2 protein levels. Importantly, targeting Mcl-1 was also active in Her2-positive BC cells resistant to Her2 inhibitors, including a brain-primed Her2-positive cell line.


Our data demonstrate a critical role of Mcl-1 in Her2-positive BC cell survival under hypoxic conditions and provide the preclinical framework for the therapeutic use of novel Mcl-1- targeting agents to improve patient outcome in BC.

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