Introduction: Current studies indicate that triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive breast cancer subtype, is associated with poor prognosis and an early pattern of metastasis. Emerging evidence suggests that MUC4 mucin is associated with metastasis of various cancers, including breast cancer. However, the functional role of MUC4 remains unclear in breast cancers, especially in TNBCs. Method: In the present study, we investigated the functional and mechanistic roles of MUC4 in potentiating pathogenic signals including EGFR family proteins to promote TNBC aggressiveness using in vitro and in vivo studies. Further, we studied the expression of MUC4 in invasive TNBC tissue and normal breast tissue by immunostaining. Results: MUC4 promotes proliferation, anchorage-dependent and-independent growth of TNBC cells, augments TNBC cell migratory and invasive potential in vitro, and enhances tumorigenicity and metastasis in vivo. In addition, our studies demonstrated that MUC4 up-regulates the EGFR family of proteins, and augments downstream Erk1/2, PKC-γ, and FAK mediated oncogenic signaling. Moreover, our studies also showed that knockdown of MUC4 in TNBC cells induced molecular changes suggestive of mesenchymal to epithelial transition. We also demonstrated in this study, for the first time, that knockdown of MUC4 was associated with reduced expression of EGFR and ErbB3 (EGFR family proteins) in TNBC cells, suggesting that MUC4 uses an alternative to ErbB2 mechanism to promote aggressiveness. We further demonstrate that MUC4 is differentially over-expressed in invasive TNBC tissues compared to normal breast tissue. Conclusions: MUC4 mucin expression is associated with TNBC pathobiology, and its knockdown reduced aggressiveness in vitro, and tumorigenesis and metastasis in vivo. Overall, our findings suggest that MUC4 mucin promotes invasive activities of TNBC cells by altering the expression of EGFR, ErbB2, and ErbB3 molecules and their downstream signaling.
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