Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 127-146

First online:

Noncanonical TGF-β Signaling During Mammary Tumorigenesis

  • Jenny G. ParvaniAffiliated withCase Comprehensive Cancer Center, Case Western Reserve University
  • , Molly A. TaylorAffiliated withCase Comprehensive Cancer Center, Case Western Reserve University
  • , William P. SchiemannAffiliated withCase Comprehensive Cancer Center, Case Western Reserve University Email author 

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Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease comprised of at least five major tumor subtypes that coalesce as the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States. Although metastasis clearly represents the most lethal characteristic of breast cancer, our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that govern this event remains inadequate. Clinically, ~30% of breast cancer patients diagnosed with early-stage disease undergo metastatic progression, an event that (a) severely limits treatment options, (b) typically results in chemoresistance and low response rates, and (c) greatly contributes to aggressive relapses and dismal survival rates. Transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) is a pleiotropic cytokine that regulates all phases of postnatal mammary gland development, including branching morphogenesis, lactation, and involution. TGF-β also plays a prominent role in suppressing mammary tumorigenesis by preventing mammary epithelial cell (MEC) proliferation, or by inducing MEC apoptosis. Genetic and epigenetic events that transpire during mammary tumorigenesis conspire to circumvent the tumor suppressing activities of TGF-β, thereby permitting late-stage breast cancer cells to acquire invasive and metastatic phenotypes in response to TGF-β. Metastatic progression stimulated by TGF-β also relies on its ability to induce epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and the expansion of chemoresistant breast cancer stem cells. Precisely how this metamorphosis in TGF-β function comes about remains incompletely understood; however, recent findings indicate that the initiation of oncogenic TGF-β activity is contingent upon imbalances between its canonical and noncanonical signaling systems. Here we review the molecular and cellular contributions of noncanonical TGF-β effectors to mammary tumorigenesis and metastatic progression.


Epithelial-mesenchymal transition Metastasis Signal transduction Transforming growth factor-β Tumor microenvironment