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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Cancer Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2009 November 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2597570

A novel association between p130Cas and resistance to the chemotherapeutic drug adriamycin in human breast cancer cells


Resistance to chemotherapy remains a major obstacle for the treatment of breast cancer. Understanding the molecular mechanism(s) of resistance is crucial for the development of new effective therapies to treat this disease. This study examines the putative role of p130Cas (Cas) in resistance to the cytotoxic agent adriamycin. High expression of Cas in primary breast tumors is associated with a failure to respond to the antiestrogen tamoxifen and poor prognosis, highlighting the potential clinical importance of this molecule. Here, we show a novel association between Cas and resistance to adriamycin. We demonstrate that Cas overexpression renders MCF-7 breast cancer cells less sensitive to the growth-inhibitory and pro-apoptotic effects of adriamycin. The catalytic activity of the non-receptor tyrosine kinase c-Src, but not the epidermal growth factor receptor, is critical for Cas-mediated protection from adriamycin-induced death. The phosphorylation of Akt and ERK1/2 is elevated in Cas-overexpressing cells treated with adriamycin, while expression of the pro-apoptotic protein Bak is decreased. Conversely, Cas depletion in the more resistant T47D and MDA-MB-231 cell lines increases sensitivity to adriamycin. Based on these data, we propose that Cas activates growth and survival pathways regulated by c-Src, Akt, and ERK1/2 that lead to the inhibition of mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis in the presence of adriamycin. Since Cas is frequently expressed at high levels in breast cancers, these findings raise the possibility of resensitizing Cas-overexpressing tumors to chemotherapy through perturbation of Cas signaling pathways.

Keywords: Cas, BCAR1, Adriamycin, Chemoresistance, Apoptosis


Breast cancer is a major cause of cancer-related death in women, second only to lung cancer1. Chemotherapy has been shown to benefit most women with breast cancer, especially those patients whose tumors are estrogen receptor (ER)-negative or who have become refractory to hormone therapy (1). In the United States, one of the most frequently used agents for treating breast cancer is the chemotherapeutic drug adriamycin (doxorubicin). When adriamycin is given as a single-agent treatment, response rates are typically 40%-60% and can be as high as 80% (2). Yet, despite its efficacy against breast cancer, resistance to adriamycin is a major clinical problem and an important cause for treatment failure. Several mechanisms have been suggested to cause resistance to adriamycin in breast tumor cells. They include the overexpression of P-glycoprotein and other plasma membrane multidrug transporters (2, 3); failure to undergo apoptosis caused by alterations in Bcl-2, Bcl-XL or Bax expression (4-6); and alterations in drug targets such as topoisomerase II (7). However, since treatments targeting these pathways have met with little success, additional factors must also play a role in promoting resistance to adriamycin. Identification of these mechanisms will facilitate the development of more effective strategies to overcome adriamycin resistance in breast cancer.

A number of cytoplasmic signaling molecules have been implicated in resistance of breast tumor cells to adriamycin, including focal adhesion kinase (FAK), Akt, and ERK1/2 (8, 9). Expression of the scaffolding molecule p130Cas (Cas; also known as breast cancer antiestrogen resistance 1, BCAR1) was found to be upregulated in MCF-7 and ZR-75-1 breast cancer cells treated with adriamycin (10). Interestingly, high expression of Cas in primary breast tumors correlates with a failure to respond to the antiestrogen tamoxifen and poor prognosis (11). Cas overexpression in estrogen-dependent ZR-75-1, T47D, and MCF-7 breast cancer cells is sufficient to drive proliferation in the presence of the antiestrogens tamoxifen and ICI 182,780 (12, 13). Despite the fact that these cells proliferate in the presence of tamoxifen under conditions of high Cas expression, gene expression driven from estrogen-regulated promoters is generally inhibited (12, 13). This suggests that Cas overexpression activates cell proliferation pathways that are independent of ER-dependent gene regulation. Work from our group has shown that these pathways include the protein tyrosine kinase c-Src, signaling from the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), and Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription 5b (STAT5b) (13).

In this study, we show that, in addition to tamoxifen resistance, Cas mediates resistance to the apoptotic and anti-proliferative effects of adriamycin in human breast cancer cells. Cas-mediated protection from adriamycin requires the kinase activity of c-Src, but not that of the EGFR. Cas overexpression promotes activation of Akt and ERK1/2 in the presence of adriamycin, and alters the balance of Bcl-2 family members in favor of the anti-apoptotic proteins. Conversely, Cas depletion increases sensitivity to the death-inducing effects of adriamycin. Based on these findings, we suggest that adriamycin resistance mediated by Cas results from the sum of signals arising from activation of survival and proliferative pathways and inhibition of the mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis pathway.


Cell culture

Stable tetracycline-regulated MCF-7 clones containing either pTre2-Pur (Vector) or Myc-Cas-pTre2-Pur (Cas4) were previously described (13). Clones were cultured in Dulbecco's Modified Eagle's Medium (DMEM) supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum (FBS), 1% Penicillin/Streptomycin, 4 mM L-glutamine, 100 μg/ml G418, and 0.75 μg/ml puromycin. T47D cells were cultured in RPMI 1640 supplemented with 10% FBS, 1% Penicillin/Streptomycin, 1X Glucose, 10 mM Hepes, 1 mM Sodium Pyruvate, and 7 μg/ml insulin. MDA-MB-231 cells were cultured in DMEM supplemented with 10% FBS, 1% Penicillin/Streptomycin and 1 mM Sodium Pyruvate.

Reagents and immunoblotting

Western blots were performed as described previously (14, 15). Antibodies were obtained as follows: p-Akt (S473), total Akt, Bcl-2, Cas, Crk, PARP1 (BD Biosciences, San Diego, CA), phospho-ERK1/2, actin and β-tubulin (Sigma, St. Louis, MO), ERK (Cell Signaling Technology, Beverly, MA), Bak (Upstate, Lake Placid, NY), Bax, GAPDH (Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Santa Cruz, CA), and Bcl-XL (Millipore, Temecula, CA). Doxycycline, adriamycin, RNase (Sigma, St. Louis, MO), PP2, AG1478 (Calbiochem, San Diego, CA), rhodamine 123, propidium iodide (Molecular Probes, Carlsbad, CA), and deoxyribonuclease I (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA) were purchased from the indicated sources.

Rhodamine 123 (R123) incorporation

2.5 × 105 cells were plated in 60-mm dishes and cultured in the presence or absence of 1 μg/ml dox for 48 h. Cells were washed and placed in media supplemented with vehicle or the indicated concentration of adriamycin in the presence or absence of 1 μg/ml dox. The cells were collected 48 h later, incubated with the membrane-permeable lipophilic cationic fluorochrome rhodamine 123 (200 nM), and analyzed by flow cytometry.

RNA interference and transfections

BCAR1 Stealth Select RNAi (siCas) and non-targeting control siRNA (siControl) were purchased from Invitrogen and Dharmacon Research, respectively. A second oligonucleotide (GUCUACGACGUUCCUCCAU) was synthesized directed against the YXXP substrate-binding domain of Cas (siYXXP). Transfections were conducted in 6-well plates using Lipofectamine RNAiMax transfection reagent (Invitrogen) according to the manufacturer's instructions. Briefly, RNA duplexes (600 pmol) were complexed with Lipofectamine RNAiMax in 6-well plates for 10 min at room temperature and 8 × 105 cells were subsequently added. 24 h later, cells were collected, counted, and replated at a concentration of 2.5 × 105 cells per condition. Cells were treated 24 h later with the indicated concentrations of adriamycin and R123 analysis was performed 48 h later.

Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) and cell cycle determination

2.5 × 105 cells were plated in 60-mm dishes and cultured in the presence or absence of 1 μg/ml dox for 48 h. Cells were washed and placed in fresh media supplemented with vehicle or 3 μM adriamycin in the presence or absence of 1 μg/ml dox. Cells were processed 48 h later for TUNEL staining using an in situ cell death detection kit (Roche Applied Science, Penzberg, Germany) and analyzed by flow cytometry, or for cell cycle analysis by staining with 40 μg/ml propidium iodide (PI) solution in the presence of 100 μg/ml RNase followed by flow cytometry. Cell cycle was quantified using the Denn-Jett-Fox Modeling Algorithm.

Flow cytometry

Adherent cells were trypsinized, collected, combined with floating cells and fixed using the BD Cytofix/Cytoperm solution (BD Bioscience, San Diego, CA) for 20 min at 4°C (cells for the R123 studies were not fixed). Cells were processed as described above and analyzed on the FACScaliber (Becton Dickinson). Analysis of data was performed utilizing the Flowjo Flow Cytometry Software (Tree Star Inc., Ashland, OR).


Densitometry was performed by the Molecular Dynamics Densitometer (Molecular Dynamics, Sunnyvale, CA) and quantified with ImageQuant 5.0 software (GE, Piscataway, NJ).

Statistical analyses

Two-tailed Student's t tests were used for the pair-wise comparison of experimental groups.


Differential sensitivity of human breast cancer cell lines to adriamycin

One mechanism by which adriamycin exerts its cytotoxic activity is through induction of apoptosis via the mitochondrial intrinsic pathway (16). To begin to investigate the role of Cas in adriamycin resistance, we determined the sensitivity of several human breast cancer cell lines to adriamycin using rhodamine 123 (R123) incorporation, a measure of mitochondrial transmembrane potential. MCF-7, T47D, and MDA-MB-231 (231) cells were treated with increasing concentrations of adriamycin for 48 hours and R123 incorporation was analyzed by flow cytometry. T47D cells (ER+, model of early stage breast cancer) were completely insensitive to the death-inducing effects of adriamycin (Fig. 1A, squares), whereas MDA-MB-231 cells (ER−, model of more advanced stage breast cancer) showed a 30% decrease in R123 incorporation at the maximum drug concentration (diamonds). MCF-7 cells (ER+, model of early stage breast cancer) were the most sensitive cell line, displaying an initial 50% reduction in R123 incorporation at 1 μM adriamycin and an additional 10% decline at 3-20 μM (triangles). These results demonstrate that sensitivity to adriamycin differs among human breast cancer cell lines and neither ER status nor tumor cell “aggressiveness” appears to be reliable predictors of sensitivity to this drug.

Figure 1
Human breast cancer cell lines differ in their sensitivity to adriamycin. A. 2 × 105 MCF-7, T47D, and MDA-MB-231 cells were plated in 60-mm dishes and allowed to adhere for 24 h. Cells were treated with 0-20 μM adriamycin for an additional ...

In a previous study, we noted that Cas expression was variable in human breast cancer cell lines (17). To test whether the differing sensitivity to adriamycin could be due to Cas levels in the cell, Cas expression was measured in the three cell lines. Cas was expressed in the resistant T47D cell line at levels that were 2.1-fold above those seen in the sensitive MCF-7 cell line (Fig. 1B). MDA-MB-231 cells, which exhibited intermediate sensitivity to adriamycin, contained 1.7-fold greater amounts of Cas relative to MCF-7 cells. Interestingly, the Cas that was present in T47D and MDA-MB-231 cells displayed retarded electrophoretic mobility as compared to Cas in MCF-7 cells; this slower migrating species represents the hyperphosphorylated form of Cas (18). Phosphorylation of Cas, which is predominately mediated by c-Src (19), plays a critical role in its function as a regulator of survival and proliferation (14, 20, 21). Thus, the elevated expression of highly phosphorylated Cas in resistant cells suggests that Cas may play a role in the cellular response to adriamycin through its ability to modulate growth and survival pathways.

Cas promotes resistance to adriamycin

To address whether Cas expression has an effect on adriamycin-induced cell death, MCF-7 breast cancer cells that stably express tetracycline-regulated (“Tet-off”) constructs encoding vector sequences or Myc-Cas were grown in the presence or absence of 1 μg/ml doxycycline (dox) for 48 hours to modulate Cas levels. Cas was expressed approximately 6-fold over endogenous levels in the absence of dox (Fig. 2A, inset). These cells were then cultured for an additional 48 hours in 0-20 μM adriamycin in the presence or absence of dox, and R123 incorporation was assessed by flow cytometry. In the presence of increasing concentrations of adriamycin, the percentage of cells incorporating R123 was consistently reduced by ~40% in cells expressing endogenous (1X) Cas compared to cells with 6-fold above endogenous levels of Cas (Fig. 2A). These differences in mitochondrial transmembrane potential suggest that Cas may promote resistance to adriamycin through upregulation of survival signals emanating from the mitochondria.

Figure 2
Cas promotes resistance to adriamycin. A, Cells overexpressing Cas incorporate greater amounts of R123. Stable doxycycline-regulated MCF-7 (Cas4) cells were cultured in the presence (diamonds) or absence (squares) of 1 μg/ml dox for 48 h and then ...

To further evaluate the effect of Cas overexpression on adriamycin-induced apoptosis, TUNEL staining was performed on Cas-inducible or vector-controlled MCF-7 cells cultured as described above. Adriamycin treatment induced apoptosis, as measured by TUNEL positivity, in vector-control cells and in the Cas-inducible cell line when Cas was expressed at endogenous levels (Fig. 2B, gray and black bars). Cas overexpression significantly inhibited adriamycin-induced apoptosis (checkered-black bar).

In parallel, the effect of adriamycin on the cell cycle was assessed as a function of Cas expression by determining the percentage of cells in G0/G1, S, and G2/M. Cells were cultured as described above, stained with propidium iodide (PI), and analyzed by flow cytometry to determine the percentage of cells in each phase (supplemental Fig. S1). Cas overexpression induced a significant increase in the percentage of cells in S phase regardless of treatment (Fig. 2C). Adriamycin caused a significant increase in G0/G1 and a concomitant decrease in the percentage of cells in S phase when Cas was expressed at endogenous levels, indicative of a G0/G1 arrest. In contrast, cells overexpressing Cas exhibited no G0/G1 block, and as stated above, the percentage of cells in S phase increased.

We hypothesized that, if Cas overexpression could render sensitive cells resistant to adriamycin, then depletion of Cas in resistant cells might have the opposite effect. T47D cells, which exhibited the greatest level of resistance to adriamycin, were depleted for Cas with the use of targeted siRNAs (Fig. 2D, top left) and cultured in the presence of 0-2 μM adriamycin for 48 hours. As expected, treatment of these cells with adriamycin alone had no significant effect on R123 incorporation (Fig. 2D, left graph, black bars). However, cells treated with Cas-targeted siRNAs showed a significant reduction in R123 incorporation following adriamycin treatment (siCas, gray bars) compared to mock-transfected and siControl-treated cells (black and white bars, respectively). Thus, upon Cas depletion, T47D cells become sensitized to adriamycin-induced apoptosis.

To examine whether this was unique to the T47D cell line, we also investigated the effect of Cas depletion in MDA-MB-231 cells, which showed an intermediate sensitivity to adriamycin. Again, adriamycin had no significant effect on mock-transfected or siControl-treated MDA-MB-231 cells (Fig. 2D, right graph, black and white bars). However, Cas depletion by siCas resulted in a significant decrease in R123 incorporation in the presence of 2 μM adriamycin (gray bar). To exclude non-specific effects, similar Cas depletion experiments were performed in MDA-MB-231 cells using a second independent siRNA oligonucleotide targeting Cas (siYXXP). As was the case for siCas, MDA-MB-231 cells treated with siYXXP exhibited greater sensitivity to adriamycin than did control cells (supplemental Fig. S2). Taken together, these results indicate that Cas depletion reverses chemoresistance and sensitizes these cells to the cytotoxic effects of adriamycin.

Cas-dependent adriamycin resistance requires the kinase activity of c-Src

We and others have previously shown that Cas is a potent activator of c-Src kinase activity through its ability to bind to the Src homology 2 (SH2) and SH3 domains, thus relieving its auto-inhibitory conformation (14, 20, 22). To test the requirement for c-Src kinase activity in Cas-mediated resistance to adriamycin, Cas-inducible MCF-7 cells were treated with the Src-family kinase inhibitor PP2 in the presence or absence of 3 μM adriamycin and then analyzed for R123 incorporation. Consistent with the data in Fig. 2A, adriamycin treatment resulted in a marked decrease in R123 incorporation in cells expressing endogenous Cas, while cells overexpressing Cas showed significantly greater R123 incorporation (Fig. 3A, media, adriamycin-treated cells). However, in the presence of PP2, Cas overexpression was no longer seen to protect the cells from the toxic effects of adriamycin (compare white bars in adriamycin-treated media vs. PP2 groupings).

Figure 3
Cas-mediated protection from adriamycin-induced cell death requires the kinase activity of c-Src. A, PP2 reduces the amount of rhodamine 123 incorporation in Cas overexpressing cells. Dox-regulated MCF-7 Cas4 cells were grown as described for Fig. 2. ...

TUNEL assays were performed to confirm these results. As was the case in Fig. 2B, the extent of apoptosis induced by adriamycin was significantly reduced in cells overexpressing Cas (Fig. 3B; media, adriamycin-treated cells). PP2 treatment resulted in a significant increase in apoptosis under both control and Cas-overexpressing conditions when cells were cultured in adriamycin (PP2, adriamycin-treated cells). In addition, the protective effect of Cas overexpression on adriamycin-induced cell death was significantly less in the presence of PP2. While Cas overexpression resulted in a ~70% decrease in the number of TUNEL positive cells when cultured in the presence of adriamycin (Fig. 3C, media, adriamycin-treated cells), only a ~32% decrease was observed in the presence of both adriamycin and PP2 (PP2, adriamycin-treated cells). Interestingly, Cas overexpression also had a protective effect on the low level of TUNEL positivity observed in the absence of adriamycin, resulting in an ~80% decrease in the number of TUNEL positive cells (media, vehicle-treated cells). This effect was similar in PP2-treated cells in the absence of adriamycin (PP2, vehicle-treated cells). These data indicate that c-Src kinase activity contributes specifically to Cas-dependent protection from adriamycin-induced apoptosis.

Since EGFR signaling contributes to Cas-mediated antiestrogen resistance (13), we next investigated whether EGFR catalytic activity was required for Cas-dependent resistance to adriamycin. Cas-overexpressing cells grown in the presence or absence of 1μg/ml dox were treated with 3μM adriamycin and the EGFR kinase inhibitor AG1478. Cas overexpression continued to provide protection from the toxic actions of adriamycin in the presence of AG1478, as seen by R123 incorporation (Fig. 3A) and TUNEL positivity (Fig. 3B). Cas overexpression resulted in a ~72% decrease in the number of TUNEL positive cells cultured in the presence of both adriamycin and AG1478 (Fig. 3C, AG1478, adriamycin-treated cells), similar to the ~70% reduction in the presence of either agent alone. Thus, in contrast to c-Src activity, EGFR kinase activity did not appear to contribute to the protective effect of Cas overexpression against the cytotoxic activity of adriamycin.

Cas overexpression is associated with the activation of Akt and ERK1/2

Since Cas expression appeared to play a role in the cellular response to adriamycin, we next investigated whether drug treatment affected the level of Cas in the cell. Interestingly, endogenous Cas was markedly reduced following adriamycin treatment (Fig. 4A, top panel, compare lanes 1 and 3 and Fig. 4B, left panel), but the level of Cas remained high in cells overexpressing Cas (Fig. 4A, lane 4 and Fig. 4B). The PI3K/Akt pathway, which can be activated in response to both c-Src activation and Cas overexpression (23), contributes to chemo- and radio-resistance (24). To assess whether Cas overexpression affects Akt activity, phosphorylation of Ser 473 on Akt was evaluated. Akt phosphorylation was not altered by Cas expression in the absence of drug (Fig. 4A, second panel and Fig. 4B, middle panel). However, pAktS473 became significantly elevated in Cas-overexpressing cells after 48 hours of adriamycin treatment.

Figure 4
Cas overexpression correlates with increased activation of Akt and ERK1/2. A, Proteins (50μg) isolated from cells cultured in the presence or absence of adriamycin for 48 h were separated on 10% SDS-PAGE and immunoblotted with the indicated antibodies. ...

ERK1/2 has also been reported to be activated in response to Cas overexpression and c-Src activation (22, 23). Phospho-ERK1/2 levels were measured to determine whether ERK1/2 is differentially activated during adriamycin treatment in the presence of high levels of Cas. ERK1/2 phosphorylation was elevated in Casoverexpressing cells compared to cells expressing endogenous levels of Cas, irrespective of whether the cells were treated with adriamycin or not (Fig. 4A, fourth panel, lanes 2 and 4 and Fig. 4B, right panel, white bars). While total ERK1/2 levels decreased in the presence of adriamycin, phospho-ERK1/2 was selectively enhanced in cells expressing either endogenous or overexpressed levels of Cas. However, phospho-ERK1/2 was elevated to a greater extent in Cas-overexpressing cells as compared to cells expressing endogenous Cas.

Cas regulates the expression of Bcl-2 family members

The changes in R123 incorporation reported above suggest that Cas protects against mitochondrial membrane damage following adriamycin treatment. We hypothesized that Cas expression might impact the expression of one or more of the Bcl-2 family members that control the intrinsic death pathway. To test this hypothesis, the expression of Bcl-2 family members was measured in MCF-7 cells induced to overexpress Cas. Expression of the pro-apoptotic protein Bak was decreased by ~40% as a function of Cas overexpression (Fig. 5A, second panel, compare lanes 1 and 2, and densitometry). Adriamycin treatment had little effect on Bak expression in cells expressing endogenous Cas (lane 3). However, Bak expression was significantly reduced when cells overexpressing Cas were treated with adriamycin (lane 4). This result was consistently observed in 4 independent experiments. In contrast to Bak, expression of the pro-apoptotic protein Bax and the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL did not change in response to adriamycin treatment or Cas expression levels (third through fifth panels).

Figure 5
Cas mediates resistance to adriamycin through modulation of the mitochondrial-mediated cell death pathway. Proteins (50μg) isolated from cells cultured in the presence or absence of adriamycin for 48 h were separated by SDS-PAGE and immunoblotted ...

The corresponding loss-of-function approach was taken in MDA-MB-231 cells to assess whether depletion of Cas in adriamycin-resistant cell lines would also impact the expression of Bcl-2 family members. Cas depletion resulted in increased levels of Bak (2.6-fold) relative to control cells in the absence of adriamycin (Fig. 5B, second panel and densitometry), demonstrating that Bak expression can be regulated by Cas in these cells under normal growth conditions. However, when the cells were treated with adriamycin; siControl- and siCas-treated cells contained roughly equivalent levels of Bak, as determined by densitometry. Bax and Bcl-2 expression did not change significantly in MDA-MB-231 cells in response to Cas depletion or adriamycin treatment (third and fourth panels). However, expression of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-XL was completely abrogated under conditions of Cas depletion or adriamycin treatment (fifth panel, lanes 2-4). Similar results were seen in T47D cells (data not shown). This change effectively creates an imbalance in Bcl-2 proteins in favor of the pro-apoptotic members. Interestingly, adriamycin did not completely abrogate endogenous Cas expression in siControl-treated MDA-MB-231 cells as it did in MCF-7 cells (top panel, lane 3). Moreover, only the slower migrating, hyperphosphorylated form of Cas remained. We suggest that the pro-survival signals resulting from the continued presence of phosphorylated Cas may outweigh pro-apoptotic signals generated by this shift in the balance of Bcl-2 proteins when control cells are treated with adriamycin.

Adriamycin-induced cell death also depends on activation of caspases, which play crucial roles in the proteolysis of a number of key targets (25). Thus, we hypothesized that Cas overexpression might result in the inhibition of caspase activation. One target of caspase activity is Cas, which has been reported to be cleaved during etoposide-induced apoptosis (26). As discussed above, endogenous Cas was significantly diminished in response to adriamycin treatment in both MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells. This coincided with the appearance of a 31 KDa cleavage product following adriamycin treatment (supplemental Fig. S3). Both the decrease in full-length Cas and the accumulation of the 31 kDa fragment was less pronounced in the presence of the caspase inhibitor z-VAD-fmk (data not shown), implicating caspases in the adriamycin-induced proteolysis of endogenous Cas. Interestingly, the 31 kDa fragment was also present in adriamycin-treated Cas-overexpressing cells (Fig. S3). However, full-length Cas is still expressed at high levels under these conditions (Figs. (Figs.4A4A and and5A).5A). To examine caspase activity at the molecular level, the extent of cleavage of the caspase substrate, Poly (ADP Ribose) Polymerase 1 (PARP1), was measured in the Cas-inducible MCF-7 cells. In the absence of adriamycin, PARP1 was present as a full-length 118kDa species in both control and Cas-overexpressing cells (Fig. 5C, lanes 1 and 2). Following adriamycin treatment, PARP1 was cleaved in control cells, resulting in a reduction in the 118kDa species and the appearance of an 85kDa fragment (lane 3). Cleavage of PARP1 was significantly reduced in Cas-overexpressing cells after adriamycin treatment (lane 4), suggesting that overexpression of Cas blocked the activation of the caspases responsible for PARP1 cleavage.


Cas is overexpressed in a large number of breast cancers, coincident with increased resistance to tamoxifen and poor relapse-free and overall survival rates (11). Here, we have examined the putative role of Cas in resistance to the cytotoxic agent adriamycin. We show for the first time that MCF-7 cells overexpressing Cas are less sensitive to the growth-inhibitory and pro-apoptotic effects of adriamycin. The kinase activity of c-Src, but not that of the EGFR, is required for Cas-mediated enhancement of cell proliferation and survival in the presence of adriamycin. Akt and ERK1/2 activation are upregulated when cells overexpressing Cas are treated with adriamycin, coincident with a down-regulation in Bak expression. This results in a shift toward pro-survival/proliferation signals stemming from Akt and ERK1/2 and away from pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins. Based on these findings, we propose that Cas overexpression in sensitive cells activates growth and survival pathways that are regulated by c-Src, Akt, and ERK1/2 and lead to the inhibition of mitochondrial-mediated cell death and promotion of continued proliferation in the presence of adriamycin (Fig. 6A). Conversely, Cas depletion in more resistant cell lines results in a shift toward pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins, coincident with decreased R123 incorporation in the presence of adriamycin (Fig. 6B). However, residual expression of hyperphosphorylated Cas, which is seen when siControl-treated cells are treated with adriamycin, may protect cells from the cytotoxic effects of adriamycin in the presence of a similar shift toward pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 signals (Fig. 6C). These results bring to light a novel association between Cas overexpression and adriamycin resistance, a finding that is relevant to human breast cancer since Cas is often found to be expressed at high levels in breast tumors (11).

Figure 6
Models for Cas-mediated resistance to adriamycin. A, Effect of Cas overexpression in “sensitive” cell lines treated with adriamycin (MCF-7 cells expressing 6X Cas). B, Effect of Cas depletion in “resistant” cell lines treated ...

The growth and survival pathways that promote resistance to adriamycin in the presence of high Cas expression share many features with those pathways that regulate Cas-dependent estrogen signaling and antiestrogen resistance. Cabodi et al. showed that Cas overexpression in T47D cells caused increased c-Src and ERK1/2 activities in response to estrogen (22). More recently, our group showed that Cas-dependent resistance to tamoxifen involved a signaling axis that included c-Src, EGFR, and STAT5b (13). Interestingly, while the data presented above indicate that c-Src kinase activity is important for Cas-dependent adriamycin resistance, the catalytic activity of the EGFR appears to be less important. These data are not necessarily inconsistent with our previous data on tamoxifen resistance since the earlier study implicated EGFR functions that could have been independent of its catalytic activity. It would appear from the sum of the data that high Cas expression in breast cancer cells activates potent proliferation/survival programs that override a variety of inputs that would otherwise induce cell cycle arrest and/or death.

One component of the Cas signaling axis that appears to control resistance to adriamycin is Akt. Others have found a correlation between transient Akt activation and chemoresistance of human breast tumors (8, 27). Cas binds to the p85 subunit of PI3K under a number of conditions, providing a potential link between Cas overexpression and Akt activation Akt (21, 28, 29). In addition to Akt, ERK1/2 activity was found to be up-regulated in Cas-overexpressing cells. Evidence for an association between ERK1/2 activation and chemotherapeutic resistance is somewhat conflicting. Two groups have shown that ERK1/2 activation correlates with protection from cytotoxic drugs (30, 31). However, others report that ERK activation facilitates DNA damage-induced apoptosis (32-34). It would seem from these conflicting data that the role played by ERK1/2 in therapeutic resistance can vary, depending on both the nature of the cellular insult and the cell type.

The data presented above are the first to show a link between Cas overexpression and protection from mitochondrial-mediated cell death. Results from the R123 incorporation studies suggest that Cas overexpression contributes to the maintenance of mitochondrial membrane integrity in the presence of adriamycin. The pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members, Bak and Bax, are considered to be the gatekeepers of this cell death pathway. In cells expressing endogenous Cas levels, Bak expression remained unchanged 48 hours post-adriamycin treatment (Fig. 5A). In contrast, Bak expression was reduced when Cas was overexpressed, and significantly more decreased when the cells were treated with adriamycin. Because other Bcl-2 members were unaffected by Cas levels in the MCF-7 model, this reduction in Bak expression would result in a decrease in the ratio of pro- to anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members, ultimately leading to reduced activation of the mitochondrial death pathway following adriamycin treatment. Since Akt and/or ERK1/2 activity have been shown to influence the intrinsic cell death pathway through the regulation of Bcl-2 family proteins (35-38), we propose that Cas overexpression may inhibit mitochondrial-mediated cell death by maintaining a low level of the pro-apoptotic protein Bak through the combined activation of Akt and ERK1/2. Results from the MDA-MB-231 and T47D models suggest that additional factors may also play a role. Specifically, it appears that expression of hyperphosphorylated Cas, which has been shown to regulate cell growth and survival pathways (14, 20, 21), may override pro-apoptotic signals stemming from Bcl-2 family members.

Overexpression of human enhancer of filamentation 1 (HEF1), which belongs to the Cas family of adaptor proteins, results in the activation of caspases, cleavage of HEF1, and apoptosis of MCF-7 cells in the absence of any exogenous stress (39). It is noteworthy to mention that the caspase activity in this instance is likely due to caspase 7 or one of the other redundant caspases active in MCF-7 cells, as these cells have been reported to be deficient of caspase 3 (40). Based on the data reported herein, it would appear that Cas and HEF1 function quite differently in controlling cell survival. Rather than inducing cell death, Cas overexpression had positive effects on cell proliferation and survival both in the presence and absence of adriamycin (Figs. 2B and 2C). Coincidentally, Cas overexpression did not result in PARP cleavage, suggesting that caspase activity was not induced under these conditions (Fig. 5C). Nonetheless, Cas has been previously identified as a substrate for caspases during treatment with etoposide, staurosporine and cisplatin (26, 41). Indeed, we have observed a decrease in full-length Cas following treatment of cells with adriamycin, and this coincided with the appearance of a 31 kDa carboxy-terminal fragment that has been reported to accumulate in response to caspase cleavage of Cas and induce apoptosis in MCF-7 cells (26, 39). Interestingly, the 31 kDa species was detected in Cas-overexpressing cells and may contribute to the low level of apoptosis exhibited by these cells in the presence of adriamycin (see Fig. 2B). However, full-length Cas remains high under these conditions coincident with the cells exhibiting greater resistance to the cytotoxic effects of adriamycin. This suggests that the pro-growth and survival activities of full-length Cas may play a dominant role over the apoptotic activities of the 31 kDa fragment in the presence of adriamycin.

Together, these data support a model whereby the cellular response to cytotoxic therapies such as adriamycin is governed by the balance and integration of proliferation, survival, and death pathways. Since Cas overexpression in human breast tumors is associated with poor prognosis, this study identifies the Cas signaling axis as a potential target that can be exploited to enhance the efficacy of adriamycin treatment and/or prevent resistance.

Supplementary Material



We thank members of the laboratory and Drs. Deborah Lannigan, Sarah J. Parsons, Margaret Shupnik, and Corinne Silva for their critical comments, and Joanne Lannigan and Michael Solga from the Flow Cytometry Core Facility for their assistance with flow cytometry.

Grant Support: National Institutes of Health (CA096846 and CA123037) and the UVA Cancer Center through their NCI Cancer Center Support Grant (P30 CA44579).


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