Publication Date


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Academic Program

Cancer Biology


Molecular, Cell, and Cancer Biology

First Thesis Advisor

Roger Davis


JNK, c-Jun N terminal kinase, IL-6, IL6, macrophage, MAPK


Breast cancer is the second most common malignancy in the world, accounting for over 1.7 million new diagnoses and an estimated 500,000 deaths per year (1). Overexpression of the receptor tyrosine kinase ErbB2, also known as Her2 or Neu, occurs in over 30% of breast cancers and correlates with metastasis, poor prognosis, and decreased survival (1, 2). Although therapeutics targeting ErbB2 show clinical efficacy, many patients display no initial response or develop drug resistance over time (2). A deeper understanding of the molecular basis of ErbB2-driven tumorigenesis is thus required for the development of improved therapeutic strategies.

In vitro experiments suggest that activation of the c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (JNK) pathway, a mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway, promotes proliferation, cellular invasion, and stem cell expansion in ErbB2-driven breast cancer (3, 4). Furthermore, unpublished data from our lab using mammary epithelial cells expressing activated ErbB2 show that JNK is required for acinus formation in in vitro 3D cultures. In contrast to these studies showing a tumorigenic role for the JNK pathway, other data from our lab show that JNK loss results in accelerated breast tumor growth, suggesting a tumor suppressive role (5, 6). However, these studies were performed in p53 knockout mice with or without a Kras mutation, where the latter required extensive aging and genomic instability to occur before differences in tumor growth were observable. To date, limited in vivo studies exist to confirm the role of JNK in more biologically relevant breast tumor models, such as in ErbB2-mediated cancer, which accounts for over 30% of all human breast cancers. In addition, the molecular mechanisms by which JNK signaling promotes ErbB2-driven tumorigenesis remains poorly understood.

To address the discrepancy in JNK function between the in vitro ErbB2-driven breast cancer data and the in vivo p53 knockout tumor data, I began the development of an in vivo murine model to confirm the role of JNK in ErbB2-driven breast cancer. This mouse model will also allow us to test a potential mechanism by which JNK regulates tumorigenesis. Studies show that ErbB2-mediated secretion of the inflammatory cytokine IL6 promotes transformation and tumor growth by activation of the STAT3 transcription factor, triggering an IL6/STAT3 autocrine signaling loop (7,8). A major regulator of Il6 gene expression includes activator protein 1 (AP-1), a transcription factor composed of downstream JNK targets in the Jun protein family (9). In vitro experiments using ErbB2-overexpressing mammary epithelial cell lines show that chemical inhibition of JNK suppresses secreted IL6 protein levels, supporting a role for the JNK pathway in IL6 regulation (7). Thus, I hypothesize that JNK drives ErbB2-driven breast cancer by promoting IL6-mediated tumor progression. Addressing this will increase our understanding of the role of JNK in ErbB2-driven breast cancer and reveal a potentially new mechanism by which JNK functions in tumor progression.

Additionally, I began the development of a mouse model that will allow us to investigate the role of JNK in macrophage polarization as an alternative mechanism by which JNK regulates ErbB2-driven breast cancer. In addition to promoting STAT3-dependent tumor growth, IL6 can indirectly drive tumorigenesis by promoting expression of the IL4 receptor in macrophages, triggering STAT6-mediated macrophage polarization towards the pro-tumorigenic M2 phenotype (10, 11). Unlike classically activated M1 macrophages, which promote inflammation and anti-tumor immunity, alternatively activated M2 macrophages function in immunosuppression and metastasis and correlate with advanced stages of breast cancer (12, 13). Further evidence supporting a role for the JNK pathway in macrophage polarization includes a recent study suggesting that JunB, a downstream JNK target and component of the AP-1 complex, plays a crucial role in the induction of M2 macrophage polarization in human alveolar macrophages (13). I hypothesize that activation of the JNK signaling pathway induces IL6-dependent macrophage polarization towards the pro-tumorigenic M2 phenotype. Addressing this hypothesis will determine for the first time whether JNK functions in regulating macrophage polarization within the tumor microenvironment, offering a potentially new mechanism by which JNK can promote ErbB2-driven breast cancer.

Determining the role of JNK in ErbB2-mediated breast cancer will have direct therapeutic relevance, as targeting JNK has the potential to inhibit ErbB2-driven breast cancer and other IL6-mediated diseases. Investigating the underlying mechanisms by which JNK functions in ErbB2-positive breast cancer can also offer new molecular targets and further contribute to effective drug design.



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