Breast cancer mortality is principally due to recurrent tumors that arise from a reservoir of residual tumor cells that survive therapy. Remarkably, breast cancers can recur after extended periods of clinical remission, implying that at least some residual tumor cells pass through a dormant phase prior to relapse. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that contribute to breast cancer recurrence are poorly understood. Using a mouse model of recurrent mammary tumorigenesis in combination with bioinformatics analyses of breast cancer patients, we have identified a role for Notch signaling in mammary tumor dormancy and recurrence. Specifically, we found that Notch signaling is acutely upregulated in tumor cells following HER2/neu pathway inhibition, that Notch signaling remains activated in a subset of dormant residual tumor cells that persist following HER2/neu downregulation, that activation of Notch signaling accelerates tumor recurrence, and that inhibition of Notch signaling by either genetic or pharmacological approaches impairs recurrence in mice. Consistent with these findings, meta-analysis of microarray data from over 4,000 breast cancer patients revealed that elevated Notch pathway activity is independently associated with an increased rate of recurrence. Together, these results implicate Notch signaling in tumor recurrence from dormant residual tumor cells and provide evidence that dormancy is a targetable stage of breast cancer progression.
Daniel L. Abravanel, George K. Belka, Tien-chi Pan, Dhruv K. Pant, Meredith A. Collins, Christopher J. Sterner, Lewis A. Chodosh