Extracellular and intracellular mediators of inflammation, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) and NF-kappaB (NF-κB), play major roles in breast cancer pathogenesis, progression and relapse. SLUG, a mediator of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition process, is over-expressed in CD44(+)/CD24(-) tumor initiating breast cancer cells and in basal-like carcinoma, a subtype of aggressive breast cancer endowed with a stem cell-like gene expression profile. Cancer stem cells also over-express members of the pro-inflammatory NF-κB network, but their functional relationship with SLUG expression in breast cancer cells remains unclear. Here, we show that TNFα treatment of human breast cancer cells up-regulates SLUG with a dependency on canonical NF-κB/HIF1α signaling, which is strongly enhanced by p53 inactivation. Moreover, SLUG up-regulation engenders breast cancer cells with stem cell-like properties including enhanced expression of CD44 and Jagged-1 in conjunction with estrogen receptor alpha down-regulation, growth as mammospheres, and extracellular matrix invasiveness. Our results reveal a molecular mechanism whereby TNFα, a major pro-inflammatory cytokine, imparts breast cancer cells with stem cell-like features, which are connected to increased tumor aggressiveness.
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