A transcription factor called SLUG helps determines type of breast cancer

PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:

2-May-2014

Contact: Siobhan Gallagher siobhan.gallagher@tufts.edu 617-636-6586 Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus

Findings and Significance: During breast-tissue development, a transcription factor called SLUG plays a role in regulating stem cell function and determines whether breast cells will mature into luminal or basal cells.

Studying factors, such as SLUG, that regulate stem-cell activity and breast-cell identity are important for understanding how breast tumors arise and develop into different subtypes. Ultimately, this knowledge may help the development of novel therapies targeted to specific breast-tumor subtypes.

Background: Stem cells are immature cells that can differentiate, or develop, into different cell types. Stem cells are important for replenishing cells in many tissues throughout the body. Defects that affect stem-cell activity can lead to cancer because mutations in these cells can cause uncontrollable growth. Some transcription factors regulate the differentiation or "programming" of breast stem cells into the more mature cells of the breast tissue. Abnormal expression of these transcription factors can change the normal programming of cells, which can lead to imbalances in cell types and the over-production of cells with enhanced properties of stem cells.

Breast tissue has two main types of cells: luminal cells and basal cells. Transcription factors, like SLUG, help control whether cells are programmed to become luminal cells or basal cells during normal breast development. In cancer, transcription factors can become deregulated, influencing what type of breast tumor will form. In aggressive basal-type breast tumors, SLUG is often over-expressed.

Previous work led by Charlotte Kuperwasser, principal investigator and senior author, determined that some common forms of breast cancer originate from luminal cells, whereas rare forms of breast cancer originate from basal cells. This difference in origins suggests that genes that affect the ability of a cell to become luminal or basal may also affect the formation of breast tumors. Because SLUG can regulate breast-cell differentiation, Kuperwasser's team investigated SLUG's role in breast-cell differentiation and tumor growth.

How the Study Was Conducted: The research team reduced the expression of the SLUG gene in human-derived breast cells and then used cell-sorting techniques to separate the cells into groups of luminal, basal, and stem cells. Next, they used mathematical modeling to measure the rate and frequency that each of the three cell types changed into another cell type. By comparing the rates between control cells and cells in which SLUG was reduced, the team was able to determine the role of SLUG in luminal-, basal-, and stem-cell transitions.

To test the result of their mathematical model, the research team examined and compared breast-tissue samples from mice in two groups: a control group with normal SLUG and an experimental group that did not express SLUG. Mammary glands from the experimental and control groups were analyzed for changes in structure, the amount and distribution of luminal and basal cells in the gland, and whether these cells had stem-cell activity.

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A transcription factor called SLUG helps determines type of breast cancer

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