Basal-like breast cancers (BLBC) are the most common triple-negative subtype (hormone receptor and HER2 negative) with poor short-term disease outcome and are commonly identified by expression of basal cytokeratins (CK) 5 and 17. The goal of this study was to investigate whether CK5 and CK17 play a role in adverse behavior of BLBC cells. BLBC cell lines contain heterogeneous populations of cells expressing CK5, CK17, and the mesenchymal filament protein vimentin. Stable shRNA knockdown of either CK5 or CK17 compared with non-targeting control in BLBC cells was sufficient to promote an epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) gene signature with loss of E-cadherin and an increase in vimentin expression. Relative to control cells, CK5 and CK17 knockdown cells acquired a more spindle-like morphology with increased cell scattering and were more invasive in vitro. However, CK5 or CK17 knockdown compared with control cells generated decreased lymph node and lung metastases in vivo. Loss of CK5 or CK17 moderately reduced the IC50 dose of doxorubicin in vitro and led to increased doxorubicin efficacy in vivo. Single-cell RNA-sequencing of BLBC patient-derived xenografts identified heterogeneous populations of CK5/CK17, vimentin, and dual basal CK/vimentin-positive cells that fell on an EMT spectrum of epithelial, mesenchymal, and intermediate, respectively, whereas knockdown of CK5 transitioned cells toward a more mesenchymal score.
This study supports that basal CKs 5 and 17 contribute to the adverse behavior of BLBC cells and could be an untapped source of therapeutic vulnerability for this aggressive disease.