The molecular determinants of breast cancer resistance to first-line anthracycline-containing chemotherapy are unknown.
We examined the response to doxorubicin of organotypic cultures of primary human breast tumors ex vivo with respect to cell proliferation, DNA damage and modulation of apoptosis. Samples were analyzed for genome-wide modulation of cell death pathways, differential activation of p53, and the role of survivin family molecules in drug resistance. Rational drug combination regimens were explored by high-throughput screening, and validated in model breast cancer cell types.
Doxorubicin treatment segregated organotypic human breast tumors into distinct Responder or Non Responder groups, characterized by differential proliferative index, stabilization of p53, and induction of apoptosis. Conversely, tumor histotype, hormone receptor or human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2) status did not influence chemotherapy sensitivity. Global analysis of cell death pathways identified survivin and its alternatively spliced form, survivin-ΔEx3 as uniquely overexpressed in Non Responder breast tumors. Forced expression of survivin-ΔEx3 preserved cell viability and prevented doxorubicin-induced apoptosis in breast cancer cell types. High-throughput pharmacologic targeting of survivin family proteins with a small-molecule survivin suppressant currently in the clinic (YM155) selectively potentiated the effect of doxorubicin, but not other chemotherapeutics in breast cancer cell types, and induced tumor cell apoptosis.
Survivin family proteins are novel effectors of doxorubicin resistance in chemotherapy-naive breast cancer. The incorporation of survivin antagonist(s) in anthracycline-containing regimens may have improved clinical activity in these patients.