Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is the most aggressive form of breast cancer and patients frequently present with metastases at the time of their diagnosis. Although a robust IBC-specific molecular signature remains elusive, the disease is frequently characterized by persistent expression of the adhesion molecule, E-cadherin. This is highly counterintuitive as epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), frequently associated with metastasis, results in decreased E-cadherin expression and highly aggressive cancers frequently express low levels of E-cadherin.

We hypothesized that persistent inflammation, mediated by immune activation, increases the plasticity of IBC cells, inducing EMT and allowing the re-acquisition of epithelia characteristics once removed from the inflammatory foci. In support of this hypothesis, previous in vitro work showed that soluble factors from activated immune cells induce EMT-related transcripts in both IBC and non-IBC cell lines. However, uniquely in 3 of 4 IBC cell lines but none of the non-IBC cell lines, this program included an increase of E-cadherin expression.


We used real-time cell analysis (RTCA) from Acea Biosciences (San Diego, CA) to probe the effect of immune conditioned media, produced by stimulating healthy donor peripheral blood mononuclear cells through the T-cell receptor or through toll-like receptor-4, on SUM149 inflammatory breast cancer cells. Consistent with the increased expression of E-cadherin, we observed rapid and strong increases in cellular adhesion as measured by the RCTA cell-index following culture with immune inflammatory factors. However, using the CIM chip, the same cells also showed strong increases in invasion and migration.

To determine the inflammatory factors involved in this process, we screened the immune conditioned media using a Luminex array (Millipore, Billerica, MA). TGF-b, TNF-α, and IL-6, previously shown to induce EMT, were all found at elevated levels. In 5 culture supernatants of healthy donor PBMC activated for 48h with anti-CD3 antibody, TGF-β had a modest 1.6-fold increase; TNF-α had an average 101-fold increase; while IL-6 had an average 347-fold increase. When added to cultures of SUM149 cells, these factors recapitulated the EMT gene expression signature in SUM149 including the increase in E-cadherin expression. Furthermore, the addition of neutralizing antibodies against TNF-α, TGF-β, and IL-6 to immune conditioned media prior to exposure to SUM149 cells resulted in less EMT.


Inflammatory factors may induce both the migratory ability and the characteristic persistent E-cadherin expression of IBC cells. This is mediated in part by TNF-α, TGF-β, and IL-6. However, the molecular basis for this unique IBC response requires further study hindering the development of optimal therapies. Ongoing studies at MD Anderson are exploring both the tumor and stromal components of inflammatory breast cancer.

Citation Information: Cancer Res 2013;73(24 Suppl): Abstract nr P1-06-07.