Emerging evidence suggests a direct role of cancer stem cells (CSCs) in the development of breast cancer. In vitro cellular models that recapitulate properties of CSCs are therefore highly desirable. We have previously shown that normal human mammary epithelial cells (hMECs) immortalized with human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) possess properties of mammary stem / progenitor cells.
In the present study, we used this cell system to test the idea that other known hMEC-immortalizing oncogenes (RhoA, HPVE6, HPVE7, p53 mutant, and treatment with γ-radiation), share with hTERT, the ability to maintain mammary stem / progenitor cells.
The results presented here demonstrate that similar to hMECs immortalized with hTERT, all hMEC cell lines immortalized using various oncogenic strategies express stem / progenitor cell markers. Furthermore, analyses using 2D and 3D culture assays demonstrate that all the immortal cell lines retain their ability to self-renew and to differentiate along the luminal lineage. Remarkably, the stem / progenitor cell lines generated using various oncogenic strategies exhibit a block in differentiation along the myoepithelial lineage, a trait that is retained on hTERT-immortalized stem / progenitors. The inability to differentiate along the myoepithelial lineage could be induced by ectopic mutant p53 expression in hTERT-immortalized hMEC.
Our studies demonstrate that stem / progenitor cell characteristics of hMECs are maintained upon immortalization by using various cancer-relevant oncogenic strategies. Oncogene-immortalized hMECs show a block in their ability to differentiate along the myoepithelial lineage. Abrogation of the myoepithelial differentiation potential by a number of distinct oncogenic insults suggests a potential explanation for the predominance of luminal and rarity of myoepithelial breast cancers.