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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Microenvironment-Induced Non-sporadic Expression of the AXL and cKIT Receptors Are Related to Epithelial Plasticity and Drug Resistance.


The existence of rare cancer cells that sporadically acquire drug-tolerance through epigenetic mechanisms is proposed as one mechanism that drives cancer therapy failure. Here we provide evidence that specific microenvironments impose non-sporadic expression of proteins related to epithelial plasticity and drug resistance. Microarrays of robotically printed combinatorial microenvironments of known composition were used to make cell-based functional associations between microenvironments, which were design-inspired by normal and tumor-burdened breast tissues, and cell phenotypes. We hypothesized that specific combinations of microenvironment constituents non-sporadically impose the induction of the AXL and cKIT receptor tyrosine kinase proteins, which are known to be involved in epithelial plasticity and drug-tolerance, in an isogenic human mammary epithelial cell (HMEC) malignant progression series. Dimension reduction analysis reveals type I collagen as a dominant feature, inducing expression of both markers in pre-stasis finite lifespan HMECs, and transformed non-malignant and malignant immortal cell lines. Basement membrane-associated matrix proteins, laminin-111 and type IV collagen, suppress AXL and cKIT expression in pre-stasis and non-malignant cells. However, AXL and cKIT are not suppressed by laminin-111 in malignant cells. General linear models identified key factors, osteopontin, IL-8, and type VIα3 collagen, which significantly upregulated AXL and cKIT, as well as a plasticity-related gene expression program that is often observed in stem cells and in epithelial-to-mesenchymal-transition. These factors are co-located with AXL-expressing cells in situ in normal and breast cancer tissues, and associated with resistance to paclitaxel. A greater diversity of microenvironments induced AXL and cKIT expression consistent with plasticity and drug-tolerant phenotypes in tumorigenic cells compared to normal or immortal cells, suggesting a reduced perception of microenvironment specificity in malignant cells. Microenvironment-imposed reprogramming could explain why resistant cells are seemingly persistent and rapidly adaptable to multiple classes of drugs. These results support the notion that specific microenvironments drive drug-tolerant cellular phenotypes and suggest a novel interventional avenue for preventing acquired therapy resistance.

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