Introduction: Although aromatase inhibitors (AIs; for example, letrozole) are highly effective in treating estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer, a significant percentage of patients either do not respond to AIs or become resistant to them. Previous studies suggest that acquired resistance to AIs involves a switch from dependence on ER signaling to dependence on growth factor-mediated pathways, such as human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2). However, the role of HER2, and the identity of other relevant factors that may be used as biomarkers or therapeutic targets remain unknown. This study investigated the potential role of transcription factor hypoxia inducible factor 1 (HIF-1) in acquired AI resistance, and its regulation by HER2.Methods: In vitro studies using AI (letrozole or exemestane)-resistant and AI-sensitive cells were conducted to investigate the regulation and role of HIF-1 in AI resistance. Western blot and RT-PCR analyses were conducted to compare protein and mRNA expression, respectively, of ERα, HER2, and HIF-1α (inducible HIF-1 subunit) in AI-resistant versus AI-sensitive cells. Similar expression analyses were also done, along with chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP), to identify previously known HIF-1 target genes, such as breast cancer resistance protein (BCRP), that may also play a role in AI resistance. Letrozole-resistant cells were treated with inhibitors to HER2, kinase pathways, and ERα to elucidate the regulation of HIF-1 and BCRP. Lastly, cells were treated with inhibitors or inducers of HIF-1α to determine its importance.Results: Basal HIF-1α protein and BCRP mRNA and protein are higher in AI-resistant and HER2-transfected cells than in AI-sensitive, HER2- parental cells under nonhypoxic conditions. HIF-1α expression in AI-resistant cells is likely regulated by HER2 activated-phosphatidylinositide-3-kinase/Akt-protein kinase B/mammalian target of rapamycin (PI3K/Akt/mTOR) pathway, as its expression was inhibited by HER2 inhibitors and kinase pathway inhibitors. Inhibition or upregulation of HIF-1α affects breast cancer cell expression of BCRP; AI responsiveness; and expression of cancer stem cell characteristics, partially through BCRP.Conclusions: One of the mechanisms of AI resistance may be through regulation of nonhypoxic HIF-1 target genes, such as BCRP, implicated in chemoresistance. Thus, HIF-1 should be explored further for its potential as a biomarker of and therapeutic target.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research