Functional interaction between mouse erbB3 and wild-type rat c-neu in transgenic mouse mammary tumor cells
- Aeree Kim†1, 2,
- Bolin Liu†1,
- Dalia Ordonez-Ercan1,
- Kathy M Alvarez1,
- Lynn D Jones1,
- Christine McKimmey1,
- Susan M Edgerton1,
- XiaoHe Yang1 and
- Ann D Thor1Email author
© Kim et al. licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2005
Received: 7 December 2004
Accepted: 10 June 2005
Published: 6 July 2005
Co-expression of several receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs), including erbB2 and erbB3, is frequently identified in breast cancers. A member of the RTK family, the kinase-deficient erbB3 can activate downstream signaling via heterodimer formation with erbB2. We studied the expression of RTK receptors in mammary tumors from the wild-type (wt) rat c-neu transgenic model. We hypothesized that physical and functional interactions between the wt rat neu/ErbB2 transgene and mouse ErbB3-encoded proteins could occur, activating downstream signaling and promoting mammary oncogenesis.
Immunohistochemical and Western blot analyses were performed to study the expression of rat c-neu/ErbB2 and mouse erbB3 in mammary tumors and tumor-derived cell lines from the wt rat c-neu transgenic mice. Co-immunoprecipitation methods were employed to quantitate heterodimerization between the transgene-encoded protein erbB2 and the endogenous mouse erbB3. Tumor cell growth in response to growth factors, such as Heregulin (HRG), epidermal growth factor (EGF), or insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), was also studied. Post-HRG stimulation, activation of the RTK downstream signaling was determined by Western blot analyses using antibodies against phosphorylated Akt and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), respectively. Specific inhibitors were then used with cell proliferation assays to study the phosphoinositide-3 kinase (PI-3K)/Akt and MAPK kinase (MEK)/MAPK pathways as possible mechanisms of HRG-induced tumor cell proliferation.
Mammary tumors and tumor-derived cell lines frequently exhibited elevated co-expression of erbB2 and erbB3. The transgene-encoded protein erbB2 formed a stable heterodimer complex with endogenous mouse erbB3. HRG stimulation promoted physical and functional erbB2/erbB3 interactions and tumor cell growth, whereas no response to EGF or IGF-1 was observed. HRG treatment activated both the Akt and MAPK pathways in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Both the PI-3K inhibitor LY 294002 and MEK inhibitor PD 98059 significantly decreased the stimulatory effect of HRG on tumor cell proliferation.
The co-expression of wt rat neu/ErbB2 transgene and mouse ErbB3, with physical and functional interactions between these two species of RTK receptors, was demonstrated. These data strongly suggest a role for erbB3 in c-neu (ErbB2)-associated mammary tumorigenesis, as has been reported in human breast cancers.
The erbB or epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) family forms subclass I of the receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) superfamily. Type I RTKs are expressed by epithelial, mesenchymal and neural tissues to regulate cell proliferation, differentiation and other important biological functions critical to species development . Dysregulated expression of erbB receptors or mutational events thereof have been implicated in diverse types of human cancers [1, 2]. Members of the family include: ErbB1 (also known as EGFR), ErbB2 (also known as Her-2 or neu), ErbB3 (or Her-3) and ErbB4 (or Her-4) [3–7]. erbB2 is an orphan receptor whereas other family members directly bind ligands (like the epidermal growth factor (EGF) and transforming growth factor-α (TGF-α) for EGFR, and HRG for erbB3 and erbB4) to initiate intracellular signaling .
ErbB2 may be activated via either ligand-dependent heterodimeric, or ligand-independent homodimeric processes. In the former, erbB2 is the preferred heterodimerization partner for other erbB family receptors with bound ligand . In ligand-independent signaling, erbB2 may be upregulated as a result of gene amplification, promoting homodimerization, or be activated through mutational events. ErbB2 amplification with enhanced protein expression is noted in approximately one-third of invasive human breast cancers . Selected heterodimers may enhance receptor activation and downstream signaling as compared with homodimers [1, 11, 12]. Although erbB3 lacks a functional kinase to initiate cell signaling [13, 14], the erbB2/erbB3 heterodimer complex is believed to be the most biologically active and pro-tumorigenic form of these receptor complexes [15, 16].
The erbB receptors and their respective ligands influence a wide range of cellular processes such as proliferation, maturation, survival, apoptosis and angiogenesis [11, 17–19]. In general, activated RTKs add phosphorylated tyrosine residues to downstream signaling molecules, such as the p85 subunit of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI-3K), Shc and/or Grb2 of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway. However, because of the complexity of RTK ligand-dependent and -independent mechanisms, the downstream signaling effects may be highly diverse and interactive. RTK-induced signaling is also influenced by, and may modulate, other molecular factors and signaling pathways.
Evidence of a causal relationship in human breast cancer has been derived from numerous prognostic studies and clinical trials. In vivo and in vitro model systems including transgenic mouse models support a relationship between erbB2 alterations and mammary tumorigenesis. Overexpression of erbB3 is also frequently reported in erbB2 altered breast, ovarian and bladder cancers [23, 26, 27]. Human breast cancer cell lines commonly co-overexpress both erbB2 and erbB3, further supporting their role in breast carcinogenesis [2, 11].
To investigate the role of RTKs in mammary tumorigenesis, transgenic mice bearing the wild-type (wt) or mutated, activated rat c-neu (ErbB2) were generated, and have been widely studied [28–31]. Transgenic mice expressing the activated rat c-neu (with deletion mutations) bear mammary tumors with elevated co-expression of the mutant c-neu/ErbB2 and the endogenous mouse ErbB3-encoded protein . Functional and physical interactions between these two cross-species receptors have not been reported, although interactions have been widely speculated. Transgenic mice bearing the wt-rat c-neu, under control of the mouse mammary tumor virus promoter (MMTV-LTR), typically develop unifocal, well-circumscribed, low-grade tumors after a long latency . In addition to transgene expression and, in some cases, mutation, upregulation of EGFR and p53 have been reported in derived tumors [33, 34].
We have used the wt-erbB2 transgenic mouse model to study the effects of exogenous pharmacological or dietary estrogens and anti-estrogens. In particular, we have studied interactions between RTK-associated mammary tumorigenesis and steroid hormones. From the derived mouse tumors, we have established over 150 novel murine cell lines which have proven useful for in vitro studies [35, 36]. Most tumor-derived cell lines express significant mouse ErbB3-encoded protein, in addition to high levels of the rat c-neu/ErbB2 transgene. These are also typically negative for ERα but show ERβ protein expression. A similar pattern of receptor expression has also been detected in the mouse mammary tumors.
The co-expression of erbB3 with erbB2 in both the activated and wt-neu/ErbB2 transgenic model systems suggested a biological role for erbB3 in mammary tumor pathogenesis. We hypothesized that physical and functional interactions between these RTK receptors should occur, despite their cross-species molecular structures. Signaling initiated by activated erbB2/erbB3 heterodimers should provide a more potent oncogenic signal than erbB2 homodimers alone. This would require ligand binding, most likely HRG, to activate erbB3. To test this hypothesis, we studied the responsiveness of tumor-derived cell lines to growth factors, including HRG, EGF and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1); we evaluated the effects of ligand stimulation and heterodimer formation on downstream signaling activation; and we sought evidence of physical interactions between the wt-rat c-neu/erbB2 and the endogenous mouse erbB3.
Materials and methods
Cells and cell culture
Human breast cancer cell lines SKBR-3 and BT-474 were obtained from the American Type Culture Collection (Rockville, MD, USA) and maintained in DMEM and Ham's F-12 medium (1:1, v/v) (Invitrogen Corp, Grand Island, NY, USA) supplemented with 10% FBS (Invitrogen Corp). These cell lines were cultured in a 37°C humidified atmosphere containing 95% air and 5% CO2 and were split twice a week. These human breast cancer cells were used primarily as controls.
Establishment of novel, mouse mammary tumor cell lines
Mammary tumors were obtained from the transgenic mice by surgical removal immediately following euthanasia, according to our approved IACUC protocol. The histological pattern and tumor diagnoses were confirmed by microscopic analysis. These methods have been previously described in detail , although the specific cell lines described in this work have not been previously published. In brief, solid tumor tissue was transferred into a tissue culture dish containing PBS. After removal of mammary fat and connective tissues, tumors were minced into small pieces and treated with 0.25% trypsin-EDTA (Invitrogen Corp) at 37°C for 30 min. Cells were subsequently centrifuged at 1,200 rpm for 5 min. After discarding supernatant, cells were suspended in DMEM/F12 medium supplemented with 10% FBS and 1% antibiotics and antimycotics (Invitrogen Corp). These mammary tumor cells (~1.0 × 106 cells/plate) were seeded in tissue culture dishes and kept in a 37°C humidified atmosphere containing 95% air and 5% CO2. The media was changed twice a week to maintain cells in culture. Each line was passaged approximately 20 times before stability was assumed.
Soft agar cloning assays
Soft agar cloning was performed as described previously  with some modification. The bottom agar was prepared with a mixture of 1.6 ml of 1 × DMEM/F12 (complete medium), 3.2 ml of 2 × DMEM/F12 (complete medium), and 3.2 ml of 1.25% Noble agar (Sigma Co, St Louis, MO, USA) and maintained at 42°C. From this, 2 ml was pipetted into each well of six-well cell culture plates and agar was allowed harden in the hood. For each well, top agar was a mixture of 0.2 ml of 1 × DMEM/F12, 0.4 ml of 2 × DMEM/F12, and 0.4 ml of 0.95% Noble agar. Five thousand cells (in 80 μl complete medium) were added into the top agar mixture. After vortexing gently, the cell containing top agar was added in a drop-wise fashion onto the bottom agar containing six-well plates (in triplicate per cell line). After resting for 10 min in the hood, the six-well plates were cultured in a 37°C incubator for 3 weeks. Colony counts were obtained under an inverted microscope, from three wells per cell line counting all colonies >50 μM in diameter.
Doubling time in culture
Measurement of cell growth rate in culture was determined using sulforhodamine B (SRB; Sigma Co) assays as previously described . Two thousand cells were seeded into each well of a six-well plate with complete medium. Cells were fixed with 50% trichloroacetic acid (TCA) at 24 h intervals for 3 days. TCA-fixed cells were then stained with 0.4% SRB for 30 min followed by three washes. Protein-bound dye was dissolved in 10 mM Tris base. Plates were read at 565 nM using a micro-plate reader. Cell-doubling time was calculated based on proliferation curves that resulted from changes in SRB absorbance over time. Data represent the means of at least three independent experiments.
Cell proliferation assay
A CellTiter96™ AQ non-radioactive cell proliferation kit (Promega Corp, Madison, WI, USA) was used to determine the responsiveness of cells to various growth factors. Cells were plated onto 96-well plates, 5,000 cells/well for each cell line. Twenty-four hours later, the culture media were replaced by 0.5% FBS in DMEM/F12 fresh medium or the same medium containing 25 ng/ml HRG (R&D Systems, Inc, Minneapolis, MN, USA), 10 ng/ml EGF (Sigma Chemical Co), or 40 ng/ml IGF-1 (R&D Systems, Inc) for another 72 h incubation with 5% CO2 at 37°C. After reading at 490 nM with the micro-plate reader, the percentages of viable cells were determined by reduction of MTS (3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-5-(3-carboxymethoxyphenyl)-2-(4-sulfophenyl)-2H-tetrazolium; inner salt) relative to controls. Data reflect the means of at least three independent experiments.
RT-PCR and DNA sequencing analysis
RT-PCR analyses were performed as previously described . The primers specific for rat neu were synthesized according to the literature . Forward primer AB2913, 5'-CGG AAC CCA CAT CAG GCC-3' and reverse primer AB1310, 5'-TTT CCT GCA GCA GCC TAC GC-3' amplify the region corresponding to nucleotides 1492 to 2117 of rat neu cDNA . The PCR products purified from agarose gel using QIAquick Gel Extraction Kit (Qiagen, Inc, San Valencia, CA, USA) were submitted to the core facility at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation for direct sequencing.
Immunohistochemical staining of mammary tumor tissues was performed as previously described . Briefly, after deparaffinization and rehydration, tissue sections were steamed in a 10 mM citrate buffer, pH 6.0, for 30 min. Non-specific reactivity was blocked with 0.3% H2O2 in buffer. For erbB3 immunoassays, CAS Block (Zymed Laboratories, Inc, South San Francisco, CA, USA) and 10% normal horse serum (Vector Laboratories, Inc, Burlingame, CA, USA) were used sequentially. For phospho-Akt immunostaining, we used 1% H2O2 and 5% normal goat serum (Vector Laboratories, Inc) sequentially. Primary antibodies included an anti-erbB2 (reactive with rat c-neu/erbB2 rabbit polyclonal, dilution 1:1000 (Dako, Carpinteria, CA, USA) for 2 h incubation at room temperature), anti-erbB3 (cross-reacts with mouse and human, mouse monoclonal, dilution 1:50 (NeoMarkers, Inc, Fremont, CA, USA), overnight incubation at 4°C), anti-phospho-Akt (rabbit polyclonal, diluted in 5% normal goat serum 1:12.5 (Cell Signaling Technology, Beverly, MA, USA), overnight at 4°C), or anti-phospho-MAPK (E10 monoclonal antibody, diluted in 5% normal goat serum 1:25 (Cell Signaling Technology), overnight at 4°C). After multiple washes with buffer, tissue sections were sequentially incubated for 30 min at room temperature with diluted biotinylated secondary antibody (1:500; Dako) and VECTASTAIN Elite ABC reagent (Vector Laboratories, Inc) diluted in PBS. After reaction with diaminobenzidine (Dako) and counterstaining with hematoxylin, tumors were individually examined. Each slide was evaluated in its entirety for antigen expression, cell type and histopathological diagnoses.
Immunoprecipitation and Western blot analysis
Immunoprecipitation and Western blot assays were performed as previously described . Briefly, cells were lysed in NP-40 lysis buffer (50 mM Tris-HCl, pH 7.4, 150 mM NaCl, 0.5% NP-40, 50 mM NaF, 1 mM Na3VO4, 1 mM phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride, 25 μg/ml leupeptin, 25 μg/ml aprotinin). The supernatants were cleared by centrifugation. Protein concentrations were measured using the Coomassie plus protein assay reagent (Pierce Chemical Co, Rockford, IL, USA). Total cell lysates containing 200 μg of protein were subjected to immunoprecipitation in the presence of 1 μg anti-erbB2 antibody (mouse monoclonal antibody, Ab-4; Oncogene Science Products, Cambridge, MA, USA) for 2 h at 4°C, followed by incubation with immobilized protein A-agarose (Roche Diagnostics Corp, Indianapolis, IN, USA) at 4°C overnight with rotation. For Western blot analyses, the immunoprecipitates or equal amounts of crude extracts were boiled in Laemmli SDS-sample buffer, resolved by SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, transferred to nitrocellulose (Bio-Rad Laboratories, Hercules, CA, USA), and probed with different primary antibodies. After the blots were incubated for another 1 h at room temperature with horseradish peroxidase-labeled secondary antibody (goat anti-rabbit IgG or goat anti-mouse IgG; Perkin Elmer, Boston, MA, USA), the signals were detected using the Enhanced Chemiluminance assay (Amersham Life Science Inc., Arlington Heights, IL, USA) according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Co-expression of erbB2 and erbB3 protein in tumor-derived cell lines and tumors
Anchorage-independent cloning of mammary tumor-derived cell lines
Colonies in soft agarb
Sequencing analyses of the transgene neuin established mammary tumor-derived cell lines
Mammary tumor cell response to growth factors corresponds with erbB receptor data
HRG activation of PI-3K/Akt and MAPK kinase (MEK)/MAPK signaling promotes mammary tumor cell growth
Physical interaction between wt-rat-c-neu/ErbB2 and endogenous mouse erbB3
We have shown that transgenic mice bearing the wt-rat c-neu gene, under control of the MMTV promoter, develop mammary tumors that overexpress the rat c-neu transgene [45, 46] and the endogenous mouse erbB3 protein, in the vast majority of cases. We have shown a functional interaction between these two important RTK receptors and a role for ligand-induced signaling in vitro and in vivo. While others have reported that transgenic mice bearing activated forms of rat c-neu/erbB2 have co-expression of erbB2 and endogenous erbB3 in mammary tumors , direct physical and functional interactions between these two species receptors have not previously been reported.
Deletion mutants of the neu oncogene have been reported in two out of three of the mammary tumors derived from this wt-rat c-neu transgenic model . We did not find the same mutation rate or type in selected tumor-derived cell lines. However, we have identified a potential point mutation in 83923 cells (Fig. 3). This missense mutation is located inside the same extracellular region of neu where the deletion mutations have been reported. This particular mutation changes the amino acid 654 serine (codon AGC) into cysteine (codon TGC). It is different from the active neu mutation G664V reported in the transmembrane domain . The biological significance of the newly discovered S654C mutant neu is not yet known.
Using ligand stimulation with or without specific inhibitors, we have studied RTK-induced signaling in response to HRG and have shown activation of both PI-3K/Akt and the MEK/MAPK signal transduction pathways. A greater role for PI-3K/Akt signaling was suggested in response to HRG treatment (Fig. 7). PI-3K/Akt signaling is known to be regulated by erbB2-mediated tyrosine kinase activity. This pathway plays a crucial role in cell proliferation and survival  and has been associated with the pathogenesis of human breast cancers. PI-3K/Akt activation has also been cited as a key pathway that influences chemo-resistance patterns [48, 49]. Akt is frequently upregulated in ErbB2 amplified or overexpressing human breast cancer cells. These similarities between our transgenic model and human breast carcinogenesis suggest that the model and derived tumor cell lines may be a useful resource to study ligand dependent and independent RTK signaling in vivo and in vitro.
As a major ligand for erbB3, HRG is known to bind to erbB3, foster heterodimer complex formation and promote potent downstream signaling . HRG can thus promote mammary tumorigenesis, cell growth, differentiation and phenotypic aggression . Our immunohistochemical studies of tumors for phosphorylated proteins facilitated studies of the cellular location and architectural context of signaling. We noted enhanced phosphorylated Akt and MAPK in a perivascular distribution in mammary tumors, with overexpression of both erbB2 and erbB3 (Fig. 6), suggesting that circulating HRG may enhance the physical and functional erbB2/erbB3 interactions in vivo, similar to what we observe in vitro. This study has focused primarily on erbB3, whereas others have demonstrated upregulation of EGFR in tumors (by immunohistochemistry and Western blot) in the same model system . Low and variable expression of EGFR has also been found in mammary tumors that develop in transgenic mice bearing activated forms of rat c-neu/ErbB2 . Using in vitro analyses of the tumor-derived cell lines, we have found no significant physical or functional interaction between EGFR (erbB1) and erbB2 in the presence of EGF (data not shown). However, by immunohistochemical study, we also detected erbB1 expression at the tumor periphery as reported by DiGiovanna . These data suggest to us that erbB3 plays a more significant role in tumorigenesis than erbB1 in this model system.
These data and this model probably have relevance to human breast cancer biology and treatment strategies. We have reported that only a minority of erbB2-altered invasive human breast cancers have overexpression of erbB1 (EGFR) and activation of erbB2 . Given the complexity of the RTK receptors, various ligands and downstream signaling, it is likely that combinations of these factors including erbB3 contribute to cell signaling, biological behavior and treatment response [52, 53]. To date, the role of erbB3 in human breast carcinogenesis is not well defined, although many investigators have suggested that HRG-associated signaling may be important. In view of these complexities, it is not surprising that erbB2 aberrant breast cancers have shown variable responses to anti-erbB2 therapeutics [52, 53]. It is widely believed that co-expression of other erbB RTK family members may be one mechanism of Herceptin resistance . Ligand-induced heterodimerization between erbB3 and erbB2, the most potent signaling complex amongst the various heterodimers, is one likely mechanism of Herceptin resistance . More detailed investigations using banks of human tumors and clinical trial-associated specimens, to define the incidence of erbB3 abnormalities, functional complex formation and downstream signaling, may provide important new clues regarding these interactions and their role in breast carcinogenesis.
Our results indicate that over-expression of endogenous mouse erbB3 plays an important role in the development and progression of mammary tumors that arise in mice bearing the wt-rat c-neu transgene. The functional and physical interactions between these important cross-species erbB receptors result in activation of both PI-3K/Akt and MEK/MAPK signaling. These data support the concept that ligand-dependent and -independent signaling through erbB2 may promote mammary tumorigenesis in these transgenic mice, similar to what is observed in human breast cancers.
Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium
epidermal growth factor
fetal bovine serum
insulin-like growth factor-1
mitogen-activated protein kinase
mouse mammary tumor virus
receptor tyrosine kinase
reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction
transforming growth factor-α.
This work was supported by NIH 1RO1 CA82848 and 1P50 CA89018 to ADT.
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