Although a high frequency of androgen receptor (AR) expression in human breast cancers has been described, exploiting this knowledge for therapy has been challenging. This is in part because androgens can either inhibit or stimulate cell proliferation in pre-clinical models of breast cancer. In addition, many breast cancers co-express other steroid hormone receptors that can affect AR signaling, further obfuscating the effects of androgens on breast cancer cells.
To create better-defined models of AR signaling in human breast epithelial cells, we took estrogen receptor (ER)-α-negative and progesterone receptor (PR)-negative human breast epithelial cell lines, both cancerous and non-cancerous, and engineered them to express AR, thus allowing the unambiguous study of AR signaling. We cloned a full-length cDNA of human AR, and expressed this transgene in MCF-10A non-tumorigenic human breast epithelial cells and MDA-MB-231 human breast-cancer cells. We characterized the responses to AR ligand binding using various assays, and used isogenic MCF-10A p21 knock-out cell lines expressing AR to demonstrate the requirement for p21 in mediating the proliferative responses to AR signaling in human breast epithelial cells.
We found that hyperactivation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway from both AR and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling resulted in a growth-inhibitory response, whereas MAPK signaling from either AR or EGFR activation resulted in cellular proliferation. Additionally, p21 gene knock-out studies confirmed that AR signaling/activation of the MAPK pathway is dependent on p21.
These studies present a new model for the analysis of AR signaling in human breast epithelial cells lacking ERα/PR expression, providing an experimental system without the potential confounding effects of ERα/PR crosstalk. Using this system, we provide a mechanistic explanation for previous observations ascribing a dual role for AR signaling in human breast cancer cells. As previous reports have shown that approximately 40% of breast cancers can lack p21 expression, our data also identify potential new caveats for exploiting AR as a target for breast cancer therapy.