, Volume 31, Issue 2-3, pp 203-215

Breast carcinoma: a collective disorder

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The development and differentiation of the epithelial component of glandular tissues such as the breast is regulated by two apparently unrelated processes. One of these is presumed to be epithelial cell collective autonomous, that is, it is mediated by gene products which act directly on the epithelial cells. An important component of autonomous regulation is the functional expression of homotypic cell-cell adhesion molecules such as cadherins. The second process is non-autonomous and involves an inductive effect of the neighboring mesenchymal cell collective. An important component of non-autonomous regulation is the aggregation/condensation of mesenchyme closely associated with the epithelium. We propose that molecular alterations in autonomous and non-autonomous pathways are important causes and indicators respectively of breast cancer progression and that these two fundamental regulators of epithelial collective organization are in fact inter-dependent. For example, we show that the expression of hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), an epithelially targeted mesenchymally derived morphogenic factor is regulated by mesenchymal cell density (condensation) and by factors released from epithelial cells. Breast epithelial cells produce factors which inhibit and stimulate HGF expression. The inhibitory factor is transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) and the activation state of TGF-beta is a crucial element in HGF homeostasis. The balance of negative and positive HGF regulators is markedly affected by the growth conditions and differentiation state of the epithelial cells. The expression of the HGF receptor,met, is high in normal breast epithelial cells and in dedifferentiated (ER negative) tumor cells but is reduced or lost in ER positive well differentiated epithelial cells. Our results indicate that the expression of at least one epithelial morphogen, HGF, is inter-dependently regulated by mesenchymal condensation and by factors released by neighboring epithelial cells.