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Trapp, Elisabeth Katharina; Majunke, Leonie; Zill, Beate; Sommer, Harald; Andergassen, Ulrich; Koch, Julian; Harbeck, Nadia; Mahner, Sven; Friedl, Thomas Wolfram Paul; Janni, Wolfgang; Rack, Brigitte and Alunni-Fabbroni, Marianna (2017): LKB1 pro-oncogenic activity triggers cell survival in circulating tumor cells. In: Molecular Oncology, Vol. 11, No. 11: pp. 1508-1526

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During intravasation, circulating tumor cells (CTCs) detach from the epithelium of origin and begin the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) process, where they lose epithelial features and pass through the endothelium to enter circulation. Although detachment from the extracellular matrix is a strong source of metabolic stress, which induces anoikis, CTCs can survive. Recently, the tumor suppressor liver kinase B1 (LKB1) has gained attention for its role as a proto-oncogene in restoring the correct ATP/AMP ratio during metabolic stress. The aim of this study was to assess LKB1 expression in epithelial-negative CTCs isolated from patients with metastatic breast cancer and to characterize its possible association with EMT and stemness features. Transcriptome analysis of EpCAM-negative CTCs indicated that over 25% of patients showed enhanced LKB1 levels, while almost 20% of patients showed enhanced levels of an EMT transcription factor known as ZEB1. Transcriptome and immunofluorescence analyses showed that patients with enhanced LKB1 were correspondingly ZEB1 negative, suggesting complementary activity for the two proteins. Only ZEB1 was significantly associated with cancer stem cell (CSC) markers. Neither LKB1 nor ZEB1 upregulation showed a correlation with clinical outcome, while enhanced levels of stemness-associated CD44 correlated with a lower progression-free and overall survival. Ex vivo models showed that MDA-MB-231, a mesenchymal tumor cell line, grew in suspension only if LKB1 was upregulated, but the MCF-7 epithelial cell line lost its ability to generate spheroids and colonies when LKB1 was inhibited, supporting the idea that LKB1 might be necessary for CTCs to overcome the absence of the extracellular matrix during the early phases of intravasation. If these preliminary results are confirmed, LKB1 will become a novel therapeutic target for eradicating metastasis-initiating CTCs from patients with primary breast cancer.

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