Activation of protooncogenes and constitutive secretion of autocrine growth factors are thought to be involved in the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. We have attempted to elucidate the role of oncogenes and growth factors in the premalignant progression of human breast epithelial cells by using an immortalized, nontumorigenic, near-diploid human mammary epithelial cell line, HMT-3522, derived from a fibrocystic lesion and established in our laboratory. During propagation in tissue culture, the growth factor requirements of the HMT-3522 cells decreased simultaneously with an amplification and overexpression of the c-myc protooncogene. Other protooncogenes related to human breast cancer were unaltered with regard to gene copy number and expression. In passage 118, in which the most important growth factor still was epidermal growth factor (EGF), we were able to isolate an EGF-independent subline (S2). The EGF independence of S2 was accompanied by an overexpression of the mRNAs for epidermal growth factor receptor (EGF-R), transforming growth factor-α, and c-erb-B2 as compared to the EGF-dependent subline (S1). Moreover, by application of a blocking anti-EGF-R antibody, growth of S2 cells in EGF-free medium was inhibited significantly, indicating that EGF-R was involved in an autocrine loop probably with transforming growth factor-α as ligand. Neither the late passages of S1 cells nor S2 cells were tumorigenic after subcutaneous transplantation to athymic mice. Our results indicate that c-myc amplification and overexpression are correlated with a decreased requirement for growth factors. Even when these alterations are combined with immortalization and EGF independence, they are insufficient for malignant transformation of these human breast epithelial cells.


This work was supported by the Danish Cancer Society, the John and Birthe Meyer Foundation, the Neye Foundation, Det Bertouch-Lehnske Fond, and Købmand Bernhard Rasmussens og hustru Meta Rasmussens Mindelegat.

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