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This article has been peer reviewed. It is the author’s final published version in Breast Cancer Research, Volume 21, Issue 1, February 2019, Article number 31.

The published version is available at Copyright © Kolb et al.


INTRODUCTION: In a cancer-free environment in the adult, the skeleton continuously undergoes remodeling. Bone-resorbing osteoclasts excavate erosion cavities, and bone-depositing osteoblasts synthesize osteoid matrix that forms new bone, with no net bone gain or loss. When metastatic breast cancer cells invade the bone, this balance is disrupted. Patients with bone metastatic breast cancer frequently suffer from osteolytic bone lesions that elicit severe bone pain and fractures. Bisphosphonate treatments are not curative. Under ideal circumstances, osteoblasts would synthesize new matrix to fill in erosion cavities caused by osteoclasts, but this is not what occurs. Our prior evidence demonstrated that osteoblasts are diverted from laying down bone matrix to producing cytokines that facilitate breast cancer cell maintenance in late-stage disease. Here, we have new evidence to suggest that there are subpopulations of osteoblasts in the tumor niche as evidenced by their protein marker expression that have distinct roles in tumor progression in the bone.

METHODS: Tumor-bearing tibia of mice was interrogated by immunofluorescent staining for the presence of osteoblasts and alterations in niche protein expression. De-identified tissue from patients with bone metastatic breast cancer was analyzed for osteoblast subpopulations via multi-plex immunofluorescent staining. Effects of breast cancer cells on osteoblasts were recapitulated in vitro by osteoblast exposure to breast cancer-conditioned medium. Triple-negative and estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer proliferation, cell cycle, and p21 expression were assessed upon contact with "educated" osteoblasts.

RESULTS: A subpopulation of osteoblasts was identified in the bone tumor microenvironment in vivo of both humans and mice with bone metastatic breast cancer that express RUNX2/OCN/OPN but is negative for IL-6 and alpha-smooth muscle actin. These tumor "educated" osteoblasts (EOs) have altered properties compared to "uneducated" osteoblasts and suppress both triple-negative and estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer cell proliferation and increase cancer cell p21 expression. EO effects on breast cancer proliferation were mediated by NOV and decorin. Importantly, the presence of EO cells in the tibia of mice bearing tumors led to increased amounts of alkaline phosphatase and suppressed the expression of inflammatory cytokines in vivo.

CONCLUSIONS: Our work reveals that there is a subpopulation of osteoblasts in the bone tumor microenvironment that demonstrate a functional role in retarding breast cancer cell growth.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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