Therapies targeting estrogenic stimulation in estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer (BC) reduce mortality, but resistance remains a major clinical problem. Molecular studies have shown few high-frequency mutations to be associated with endocrine resistance. In contrast, expression profiling of primary ER+ BC samples has identified several promising signatures/networks for targeting.
To identify common adaptive mechanisms associated with resistance to aromatase inhibitors (AIs), we assessed changes in global gene expression during adaptation to long-term estrogen deprivation (LTED) in a panel of ER+ BC cell lines cultured in 2D on plastic (MCF7, T47D, HCC1428, SUM44 and ZR75.1) or in 3D on collagen (MCF7) to model the stromal compartment. Furthermore, dimethyl labelling followed by LC-MS/MS was used to assess global changes in protein abundance. The role of target genes/proteins on proliferation, ER-mediated transcription and recruitment of ER to target gene promoters was analysed.
The cholesterol biosynthesis pathway was the common upregulated pathway in the ER+ LTED but not the ER– LTED cell lines, suggesting a potential mechanism dependent on continued ER expression. Targeting the individual genes of the cholesterol biosynthesis pathway with siRNAs caused a 30–50 % drop in proliferation. Further analysis showed increased expression of 25-hydroxycholesterol (HC) in the MCF7 LTED cells. Exogenous 25-HC or 27-HC increased ER-mediated transcription and expression of the endogenous estrogen-regulated gene TFF1 in ER+ LTED cells but not in the ER– LTED cells. Additionally, recruitment of the ER and CREB-binding protein (CBP) to the TFF1 and GREB1 promoters was increased upon treatment with 25-HC and 27-HC. In-silico analysis of two independent studies of primary ER+ BC patients treated with neoadjuvant AIs showed that increased expression of MSMO1, EBP, LBR and SQLE enzymes, required for cholesterol synthesis and increased in our in-vitro models, was significantly associated with poor response to endocrine therapy.
Taken together, these data provide support for the role of cholesterol biosynthesis enzymes and the cholesterol metabolites, 25-HC and 27-HC, in a novel mechanism of resistance to endocrine therapy in ER+ BC that has potential as a therapeutic target.
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