Moffitt researchers identify pathway that controls breast cancer metastasis to the brain

Dec. 14, 2023
Cancer-associated fibroblasts in the brain secrete fucosylated poliovirus receptor that stimulates breast cancer migration and invasion.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers are working to better understand the molecular mechanisms that promote the development and progression of breast cancer brain metastasis to help improve diagnostics and treatments. In a new study published in the December issue of Cell Reports, they report on identifying a cell signaling pathway that controls breast cancer brain metastasis. 

The Moffitt team focused their investigations on cancer-associated fibroblasts and the process of fucosylation. Cancer-associated fibroblasts are a type of cell in the tumor environment that can support and promote cancer development and progression. Cancer-associated fibroblasts are well -established for their functional contributions to primary breast cancer development; however, their roles in brain metastasis are less defined. Fucosylation is a type of protein modification in which the sugar L-fucose is added to proteins, impacting their behavior and functions. Cell signaling pathways can be regulated by fucosylation, and high levels of fucosylated proteins appear to be associated with breast cancer progression.

In early laboratory experiments, the researchers discovered that breast cancer-associated fibroblasts have high levels of fucosylation that correlate with metastasis, suggesting that this process in cancer-associated fibroblasts may promote breast cancer progression. A subsequent and comprehensive series of experiments revealed that cancer-associated fibroblasts from breast cancer brain metastases secrete the protein poliovirus receptor (PVR), which potently stimulates the migration and invasive capacity of metastatic breast cancer cells, increasing breast tumor invasion in the brain. Importantly, the researchers determined that the secretion of PVR from the fibroblasts is triggered by its fucosylation, which is mediated by the hypoxia-induced protein FUT11. The researchers also confirmed in patient samples that levels of fucosylated PVR are higher in cancer-associated fibroblasts from breast cancer brain metastases than in breast cancer cells.

These combined observations suggest that fucosylation of PVR and its consequent secretion by cancer-associated fibroblasts is an important regulator of breast cancer metastasis and invasion in the brain. The researchers hope these findings will help scientists develop better diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for breast cancer brain metastasis patients. 

Moffitt Cancer Center release on Newswise