Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Cancer Biology


Molecular, Cell and Cancer Biology Department

First Thesis Advisor

Arthur Mercurio, PhD


Integrin alpha6, Breast Neoplasms, Epithelial Cells, Human Mammary Glands


Dissertations, UMMS; Integrin alpha6; Breast Neoplasms; Epithelial Cells; Mammary Glands, Human


Integrins have the ability to impact major aspects of epithelial biology including adhesion, migration, invasion, signaling and differentiation, as well as the formation and progression of cancer (Hynes 2002; Srichai and Zent 2010; Anderson et al. 2014). This thesis focuses on how integrins are regulated and function in the context of mammary epithelial biology and breast cancer with a specific focus on the α6 integrin heterodimers (α6β1 and α6β4). These integrins function primarily as receptors for the laminin family of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins and they have been implicated in mammary gland biology and breast cancer (Friedrichs et al. 1995; Wewer et al. 1997; Mercurio et al. 2001; Margadant and Sonnenberg 2010; Muschler and Streuli 2010; Nistico et al. 2014).

The first project investigates how alternative splicing of the α6 subunit impacts the genesis and function of breast cancer stem cells (CSCs). This work revealed that the α6Bβ1 splice variant, but not α6Aβ1, is necessary for the function of breast CSCs because it activates the Hippo transducer TAZ (Zhao et al. 2008a), which is known to be essential for breast CSCs (Cordenonsi et al. 2011). My work also led to the discovery that laminin (LM) 511 is the specific ligand for α6Bβ1 and that autocrine LM511, which is mediated by TAZ, is needed to sustain breast CSCs by functioning as a ‘ECM niche’. An important aspect of this study is the finding that surface-bound LM511 characterizes a small population of cells in human breast tumors with CSC properties.

The second project of my thesis concentrated on identifying transcription factors that regulate expression of the β4 subunit. The expression of the α6β4 integrin is repressed during the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) (Yang et al. 2009) but the contribution of specific transcription factors to this repression is poorly understood. This study revealed that Snai1 is a transcriptional repressor of β4, which is responsible for establishing the PRC2 (Polycomb complex 2)- associated repressive histone mark H3K27Me3. However, I also found that the ability of Snai1 to repress transcription is abrogated by its interaction with Id2. Specifically, I identified the biochemical mechanism for how Id2 regulates Snai1. Id2 binds the SNAG domain of Snai1 that is the docking site for several corepressors (Peinado et al. 2004; Lin et al. 2010b; Dong et al. 2012a). One important consequence of Id2 interacting with Snai1 on the β4 promoter is that it prevents repressive epigenetic modifications. This finding may explain why some epithelial cells express Snai1 and β4 because they also express Id2 (Vincent et al. 2009; Bastea et al. 2012). The repression of the α6β4 integrin during the EMT is consistent with data indicating that this integrin is not expressed in CSCs (Mani et al. 2008; Goel et al. 2012; Goel et al. 2013; Goel et al. 2014). An important question going forward is to understand how the α6β4 integrin contributes to tumor formation.

In summary, my thesis provides novel insights into the biology of the α6 integrins that has important implications for the function of these integrins in mammary gland biology and breast cancer, especially our understanding of breast CSCs.



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