Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease, yet it remains
possible to highlight common molecular signatures from
distinct tumour subtypes. A frequent feature found in
most breast cancer tumours is the constitutive activation
of NF-κB, a family of transcription factors that play
critical roles in cell survival, proliferation, infl ammation
and immunity . Deregulated NF-κB activation results
in the persistent nuclear localization of proteins such as
p50, p52, p65, cRel and RelB, which leads to the disrup-
tion of the balance between cell proliferation and death
through the upregulation of anti-apoptotic proteins .
The main NF-κB-activating pathways
Two major NF-κB-activating pathways have been charac-
terized, referred to as the classical or canonical and the
alternative or non-canonical pathways. Both rely on the
signal-induced phosphorylation and degradation of an
inhibitory molecule and the subsequent release and
nuclear shuttling of NF-κB proteins. Yet, both pathways
diff er by the signals that trigger them as well as by the
identity of the activated kinases, the inhibitory molecule
and the NF-κB proteins. Th e classical pathway is typically
triggered by pro-infl ammatory cytokines such as TNFα
or IL-1β and ultimately leads to the degradation of the
inhibitory molecule IκBα by the NF-κB essential modu-
lator (NEMO)/IκB kinase (IKK)γ-containing IKK com-
plex through a TAK1-dependent pathway  (Figure 1).
Th e p50/p65 heterodimer will then move into the nucleus
to induce the expression of genes involved in cell
prolifera tion and survival, infl ammation and innate
immunity. Th e alternative pathway triggers the partial
degradation of the inhibitory molecule p100 into p52
through a NF-κB-inducing kinase (NIK)-dependent path-
way (Figure 1). Th is cascade relies on an IKKα hetero-
dimer but not on NEMO/IKKγ and ultimately leads to
the nuclear shutt ling of p52/RelB dimers. Th is signalling
pathway plays a critical role in adaptive immunity .
The classical NF-κB-activating pathway in breast
Based on the key role of NF-κB in mammary epithelial
proliferation, architecture and branching during early
post-natal development [3,4], it was not surprising to see
that the constitutive NF-κB activation found in several
breast tumour cell lines has profound consequences in
the initiation and progression of breast cancer . NF-κB
is mostly activated in oestrogen receptor-negative (ER-
negative) and ErbB2-positive tumours [6,7]. Importantly,
a NEMO-binding domain (NBD) peptide, which acts as a
selective inhibitor of the IKK complex, blocked heregulin-
mediated NF-κB activation and induced apoptosis prefer-
entially in proliferating cells, showing that the classical
pathway largely contributes to tumour development .
Th ose initial reports were followed by studies that more
specifi cally addressed the role of NF-κB in breast tumour
development in vivo. A genetic approach in which the
classical NF-κB-activating path way is inhibited in defi ned
windows during polyoma middle T oncogene (PyVT)
tumourigenesis showed that interfering with this pathway
increases tumour latency and decreases tumour burden
. Th ese fi ndings are in agreement with data showing
the requirement of NF-κB for the induction and
Self-renewing breast cancer stem cells are key actors
in perpetuating tumour existence and in treatment
resistance and relapse. The molecular pathways
required for their maintenance are starting to be
elucidated. Among them is the transcription factor
NF-κB, which is known to play critical roles in cell
survival, infl ammation and immunity. Recent studies
indicate that mammary epithelial NF-κB regulates the
self-renewal of breast cancer stem cells in a model of
Her2-dependent tumourigenesis. We will describe here
the NF-κB-activating pathways that are involved in this
process and in which progenitor cells this transcription
factor is actually activated.
© 2010 BioMed Central Ltd
NF-κB, stem cells and breast cancer: the links get
Kateryna Shostak and Alain Chariot*
Interdisciplinary Cluster for Applied Genoproteomics (GIGA-Research), Unit
of Medical Chemistry and GIGA-Signal Transduction, University of Liege, CHU,
Sart-Tilman, 4000 Liège, Belgium
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
© 2011 BioMed Central Ltd
maintenance of the epithelial-mesenchymal transition
(EMT), a process that critically controls breast cancer
pro gression [9,10]. Indeed, the MCF10A immortalized
cell line, which is derived from normal mammary
epithelial cells, undergoes EMT when overexpressing the
NF-κB protein p65. Th is latter protein suppresses the
expression of epithelial markers such as E-cadherin and
desmoplakin but also induces the expres sion of mesen-
chymal markers such as vimentin. Th is process may
occur through the NF-κB-dependent expression of
ZEB-1/ZFHX1A and ZEB-2/ZFHX1B/Smad-interacting
protein (SIP1), two transcriptional regulators known to
Figure 1. The main NF-κB-activating pathways. On the left is the TNFα-dependent signalling pathway. The binding of TNFα to the TNF
receptor TNFR1 triggers the sequential recruitment of the adaptors TRADD (TNFR1-associated death domain protein), RIP and TRAF2 (TNF
receptor-associated factor 2) to the membrane. Then, TRAF2 mediates the recruitment of the IκB kinase (IKK) complex, composed of IKKα, IKKβ
and NEMO (NF-kappa-B essential modulator), to the TNFR1 signalling complex. The scaff old proteins TAB2 and TAB3 subsequently bind to Lys63-
polyubiquitylated substrates, such as receptor-interacting protein (RIP)1, resulting in TAK1 and then IKKβ activation. NEMO actually exerts its
essential role in NF-κB activation by integrating upstream IKK-activating signals. Importantly, the linear ubiquitin (Ub) chain assembly complex
(LUBAC), composed of two proteins, namely HOIL-1L (heme-oxidized IRP2 ubiquitin ligase-1) and HOIP (HOIL-1L interacting protein), binds
NEMO in a TNFα-dependent manner, and generates and conjugates linear chains of ubiquitin on the scaff old protein of the IKK complex .
The ubiquitin-binding motif of NEMO, referred to as the UBAN motif, is required to sense linear chains of ubiquitin. Activation of IKKβ leads to
IκBα phosphorylation on specifi c residues, polyubiquitylation through binding of ubiquitin proteins and its degradation through the proteasome
pathway. Then, the heretodimer p50-p65 binds to specifi c κB sites and activates a variety of NF-κB target genes coding for pro-infl ammatory
cytokines (IL-6) and chemokines. On the right is the alternative NF-κB-activating pathway. Binding of CD154 triggers the classical NEMO-dependent
pathway (not illustrated) and the NEMO-independent cascade. This pathway relies on the recruitment of the heterodimer TRAF2-TRAF3 to the
CD40 receptor. TRAF3 is required to connect the E3 ligases c-IAP1/2 (cellular inhibitor of apoptosis 1/2) to the kinase NIK (NF-κB-inducing kinase).
NIK is activated by phosphorylation and is also subjected to a c-IAP1/2-dependent degradative polyubiquitination. IKKα homodimers are activated
by NIK and phosphorylate the inhibitory molecule p100, the partial processing of which generates the NF-κB protein p52. This latter transcription
factor moves into the nucleus as a heterodimer with RelB to regulate the expression of genes involved in lymphoid organogenesis or coding for
chemokines (BLC (B lymphocyte chemokine)) or cytokines (BAFF (B-cell activating factor)).
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
Page 2 of 7
repress E-cadherin expression and to promote EMT .
Th ese data strongly suggest that NF-κB regulates breast
tumour progression independently of its eff ects on
The alternative NF-κB-activating pathway in breast
Th e classical NF-κB-activating pathway is not the only
one that contributes to breast cancer development.
Indeed, early studies also demonstrated enhanced
expression of the NF-κB protein p52 in breast cancer
samples [11,12]. Moreover, increased p52/RelB activity
was also observed in mouse mammary tumours induced
by 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene (DMBA) . Th e
defi nitive proof that the alternative NF-κB-activating
pathway is involved in breast cancer development came
from the phenotype of a mouse transgenic model in
which p100/p52 is specifi cally overexpressed in the
mammary epithelium by using the β-lactoglobulin milk
protein promoter . Th is mouse model not only
showed a delay in mammary development but also a
transient reduction in ductal branching during preg-
nancy. Matrix metalloproteinase (Mmp)-2, Mmp-9 and
cyclooxygenase (Cox)-2 turned out to be overexpressed
in these transgenic mice. Constitutive p100 over expres-
sion causes an aberrant phenotype, as shown by the
thicken ing of primary ducts, loss of epithelial cell organi-
zation and small areas of hyperplastic growth. Finally, an
increase in p100/p52 expression was also observed in
PyVT mice when tumour development is observed .
Importantly, no change of nuclear p65 was detected in
this mouse model, suggesting that the phenotype
observed was exclusively the result of a deregulated
alternative NF-κB-activating pathway. Th e expression of
the NF-κB protein RelB, which is known to play a critical
role in this signalling cascade, is increased in ERα-
negative breast cancer cells . ERα actually represses
NF-κB and AP-1 activities and consequently RelB expres-
sion. Interestingly, RelB is required for the maintenance
of the mesenchymal phenotype of ERα-negative Hs578T
breast cancer cells, at least in part through the trans-
criptional induction of BCL2 .
Other NF-κB-activating pathways in breast cancer
NF-κB is not exclusively activated through the TNF
family of receptors. Indeed, the binding of epidermal
growth factor (EGF) to its receptor (EGFR) also
ultimately activates NF-κB and most likely contributes to
the enhanced activity of this transcription factor in ER-
negative breast cancer cells . Th e exact mechanism by
which EGF activates NF-κB in breast cancer cells remains
unclear but may be similar to that described in lung
cancer cells. EGF appears to trigger IκBα phosphorylation
on tyrosine 42 through an IKK-independent pathway
. Of note, the inhibitory molecule ABIN-1 also
negatively regulates EGF-mediated NF-κB activation, a
pathway that requires its carboxy-terminal ubiquitin-
binding domain .
Th e IKK complex is not the only one whose activation
is often constitutive in breast cancer. Indeed, the so called
IKK-related kinase IKKε is also overexpressed in some
cases of breast adenocarcinomas as the result of the 1q32
amplicon . Th is gene amplifi cation is not the only
mechanism by which this kinase is aberrantly expressed,
as more than 45% of IKKε-overexpressing breast
carcinomas do not harbour the 1q32 amplicon. IKKε
expression can be induced by casein kinase 2 (CK2) in
breast cancer cells  and other pathways still to be
characterized may also contribute to this phenomenon.
Interestingly, this kinase is known to promote type I
interferon gene induction through IRF3 phosphorylation,
acts downstream of Akt and activates NF-κB by
facilitating the nuclear localization of c-REL [19,20].
Importantly, all IKKε substrates identifi ed in breast
cancer samples so far act as signalling molecules in
NF-κB-dependent cascades and mediate the oncogenic
potential of this IKK-related kinase. CYLD, a NF-κB
inhibitor acting as a tumour suppressor, is phosphory-
lated by IKKε, a modifi cation that decreases its deubiqui-
tine ligase activity and consequently its inhibitory
potential . Th erefore, an extensive understanding of
the role of NF-κB in breast cancer development and
progression should not be limited to the characterization
of both classical and alternative pathways.
NF-κB and cancer stem cells
Self-renewing breast cancer stem cells are the subject of
intensive research as key actors responsible for perpetu-
ating tumour existence and for treatment resistance and
relapse. Th ese cells can be isolated by virtue of their
expression of the cell surface markers epithelial-specifi c
antigen (ESA) and CD44 and the absence of expression of
CD24. Th e expression of aldehyde dehydrogenase has
also been used to enrich for tumour-initiating cells and
revealed that distinct breast cancers may contain cancer
stem cells that harbour diff erent cell surface markers
[22,23]. Importantly, stem cell properties can also be
gained by transformed cells undergoing EMT .
At the molecular level, Wnt, Notch and Hedgehog
developmental pathways control the self-renewal of
normal stem cells and also appear to be deregulated in
many human breast cancers . Moreover, the
membrane bound receptor tyrosine kinase Her2, which is
overexpressed in 30% of breast cancers, also critically
controls the cancer stem-cell population . As Her2
activates NF-κB through the canonical pathway , the
hypothesis that this latter family of proteins may be
involved in the biology of breast cancer stem cells made
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
Page 3 of 7
sense. Th is issue was recently addressed in a mouse
model of Her2 breast tumourigenesis in which NF-κB
was temporally suppressed in the mammary gland .
Th is approach was elegant as NF-κB activation through
the canonical pathway was only suppressed in mammary
epithelial cells but not in infl ammatory cells, blood
vessels or adipocytes, where this transcription factor
most likely contributes to tumour development. More-
over, NF-κB suppression was inducible to circumvent the
requirement of this transcription factor in normal ductal
development. Th e authors fi rst noticed that NF-κB is
required for cell proliferation and colony formation of
Her2-derived murine mammary tumour cell lines .
Th ey subsequently observed that NF-κB governs the rate
of initiation of Her2 tumours through multiple pathways
ranging from reactive oxygen species production to
cellular proliferation, invasion, infl ammation and vas-
culo genesis. Mammary epithelial NF-κB contributed to
the recruitment of tumour-associated macrophages.
Interestingly, the proportion of CD44-positive cells
dramati cally decreased in Her2-dependent tumours
where NF-κB was suppressed, thus indicating that this
trans cription factor maintains progenitor cell expansion
. Th is result was further supported by the reduced
formation of non-adherent mammospheres with cell
lines derived from Her2-dependent tumours in which
NF-κB was inhibited. Th is phenomenon was potentially
due to the reduced expression of key embryonic stem cell
regulators such as Sox2 and Nanog . As this study
was based on the expression of an IκBα super repressor
in which both serines 32 and 36 were mutated to
alanines, the resulting phenotype was caused by a defec-
tive NF-κB and IKKβ-dependent activating path way. Yet,
this signal ling cascade is not the only one that contributes
to breast cancer stem cell expansion. Indeed, IKKαAA/AA
knockin mice in which IKKα activation i s disrupted by
replace ment of activation loop serines by alanines
showed delayed tumour development when crossed with
the Her2 murine breast cancer model . Breast cancer
cells from these mice generated primary but not
secondary mammospheres, suggesting that IKKα is also
required for the self-renewal of tumour-initiating cells
from the Her2 breast cancer model.
IKKα appears to act as a central NF-κB-activating
protein in the self-renewal of breast cancer stem cells, as
evidenced by data obtained from additional mouse
models of breast cancer. Indeed, deletion of IKKα in
mammary-gland epithelial cells aff ects the onset of
progestin-driven breast cancer . Th is kinase is
actually activated through the Receptor activator of
nuclear factor kappa-B ligand (RANKL)/RANK pathway
when progesterone or synthetic derivatives (progestins)
such as medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) are given in
combination with the DNA-damaging agent DMBA to
mice. As a result, cell proliferation occurs through cyclin
D1 gene induction . Interestingly, treatment with
MPA alone led to a signifi cant expansion of luminal
progenitor cells through a massive induction of RANKL,
a phenomenon that was impaired in females defective for
RANK. Mouse mammary tumour virus (MMTV)-RANK
transgenic mice showed an enhanced susceptibility to
mammary tumours following a MPA/DMBA treatment
whereas RANK invalidation in the mammary gland
resulted in a delayed onset and decreased incidence of
progestin-driven breast cancers [30,31]. Importantly,
breast cancer cells from MPA and DMBA-treated RANK-
defective mice formed primary but not secondary
mammo spheres, strongly suggesting that a loss of RANK
expression markedly impairs the self-renewal capacity of
cancer stem cells .
NF-κB appears to be activated during diff erentiation of
the mammary colony-forming cells in which luminal
progenitor cells can be found  (Figure 2). On the
other hand, the mammary stem-like basally located cells,
also known as mammary repopulating units, are devoid
of NF-κB activity [32,33].
As a transcription factor required for the production of
chemokines and cytokines, NF-κB has been defi ned as an
essential actor in the link between infl ammation and
oncogenesis initiation and progression . Indeed,
infl ammatory molecules such as IL6 provide growth
signals that promote malignant cell proliferation.
Interestingly, a transient activation of the kinase onco-
protein Src in MCF10A cells results in phenotypic
transformation that includes the formation of multiple
foci, the ability to form colonies in soft agar and tumours
in xenografts as well as mammosphere formation .
Th is epigenetic switch, defi ned when a stable cell type
changes into another stable cell type without any modifi -
cation in DNA sequences, involves a rapid infl ammation
response that requires NF-κB . More specifi cally,
NF-κB activation triggers Lin28B expression, which in
turn decreases Let-7 microRNA levels. As Let-7 micro-
RNA directly targets IL6 mRNAs by binding their 3’ un-
translated region, the IL6-dependent signalling pathways
are strongly induced through the Src- and NF-κB-
dependent cascade . Th is newly defi ned pathway
appears to play a key role in the self-renewal capacity of
breast cancer stem cells. Th erefore, this study not only
defi ned Src as an oncogenic kinase that promotes the
expansion of breast cancer stem cells but also demon-
strated how critical NF-κB is in this process.
Despite signifi cant progress in the elucidation of the roles
played by NF-κB in breast cancer stem cell expansion,
some issues remain to be experimentally addressed. Th e
gene candidates known to regulate embryonic stem cells
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
Page 4 of 7
and to be specifi cally induced through IKKα activation in
the mammary gland remain to be identifi ed. Are Sox2
and Nanog induced by both IKKα and IKKβ? Cyclin D1,
whose expression is strongly impaired in the IKKαAA/AA
knockin mouse , may be one promising candidate as
its kinase activity appears to be crucial for the self-
renewal of mammary stem and progenitor cells . It
also remains to be seen whether the alternative pathway
is truly involved in breast cancer stem cell expansion.
Based on the fact that the Her-2-dependent NF-κB
activation pathway surprisingly relies on IKKα but not on
IKKβ , the phenotype observed in the IKKαAA/AA
knockin mouse crossed with the Her2 breast cancer
model may actually be the result of a defective classical
rather than alternative NF-κB activation cascade. In
agreement with this hypothesis, the IKKαAA/AA mutation
in mammary epithelial cells results in decreased nuclear
levels of p50 and p65, the proteins acting in the classical
Most of the data showing a link between NF-κB and
breast cancer stem cells were obtained using the Her-2
tumour model, which classifi es with human luminal-type
breast cancers. Th e canonical NF-κB pathway is active in
normal luminal progenitor cells and is consequently
required for the formation of mammary epithelial
tumours . On the other hand, NF-κB appears to be
dispensable for tumour development and progression in
the MMTV-Wnt1 model, which classifi es with human
basal-like breast cancers . Th is is most likely due to
the absence of nuclear p65 in these lesions as well as in
the mammary stem-like basally located cells, also
referred to as mammary repopulating units . Th e
molecular mechanisms underlying the specifi c NF-κB
activation in luminal progenitor cells remains to be
elucidated. Th e following years will provide further
insights into the biology of both multipotent stem cells
and lineage-committed progenitor cells and will tell us
why and how NF-κB regulates their functions.
Th e IKK-related kinase IKKε appears to act as an
oncogenic protein through NF-κB, yet it is totally unclear
whether and how this kinase promotes breast cancer
stem cell expansion. Th e generation of a new mouse
Figure 2. Hypothetical model of the diff erentiation hierarchy within the mammary epithelium and potential relationships with breast
cancer subtypes. NF-κB activation through the canonical or the non-canonical pathway is depicted as p50/p65 or p52/RelB heterodimers,
respectively. Cell surface markers used for the isolation of human epithelial cell subsets are shown in blue. Adapted from [32,33]. ER, oestrogen
receptor; PR, progesterone receptor.
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
Page 5 of 7
model specifi cally harbouring the 1q32 amplicon may be
useful to address this issue. Recent studies indicated that
the IKK complex targets multiple substrates and there-
fore has additional NF-κB-independent functions in
cancer . Whether and how these unexpected roles
contribute to breast cancer stem cell maintenance also
remains an open question.
Important studies dedicated to the identifi cation of the
cell of origin of solid tumours, including breast cancers,
have been published . Th e cell of origin may corres-
pond to the normal tissue stem cell, which can take advan-
tage of its intrinsic self-renewal capacity. A restricted
progenitor can, for other malignancies, act as the
initiating cell, as reported, for example, for BRCA1-
associated breast cancers [39,40]. Breast cancers in the
BRCA1 mutation carriers have a distinct basal-like
phenotype, yet these tumours originated from luminal
epithelial progenitors instead of from basal stem cells
[39,40]. It remains to be seen whether and how NF-κB
would be required for the conversion of a luminal
progenitor cell to a basal gene expression profi le in
tumours originated in BRCA1 mutation carriers. Never-
theless, identifi cation of the cell origin is a key step to
develop preventive therapeutic approaches in order to
suppress or reverse the initial phase of the disease. In this
context, the identifi cation of the RANKL/RANK/IKKα/
NF-κB axis as a key pathway that provides paracrine
signals to stem cells means that it is conceivable to pre-
vent some cases of breast cancers by driving stem cells
into a dormant state. Th is strategy could be achieved by
interfering with the RANK pathway with some specifi c
inhibitors, some of which are already in clinical trials for
bone metastasis .
An extensive knowledge of the biology of breast cancer
stem cells is also crucial in order to better understand
why some patients develop resis tance to therapy such as
Her2-targeting agents. Resistance to these drugs is the
result of various somatic mutations that ultimately trigger
aberrant phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K)/Akt activation
. Although Akt appears to be dispensable for Her2-
mediated NF-κB activation in breast cancer cells ,
this transcription factor is nevertheless a key actor in
chemoresistance. Future studies should also tell us
whether and how NF-κB inhibition in breast cancer stem
cells modulates their resistance to therapy.
DMBA, 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene; EGF, epidermal growth factor;
EMT, epithelial-mesenchymal transition; ER, oestrogen receptor; IKK,
IκB kinase; IL, interleukin; MMTV, mouse mammary tumour virus; MPA,
medroxyprogesterone acetate ; NEMO, NF-kappa-B essential modulator; NF,
nuclear factor; NIK, NF-κB-inducing kinase; PyVT, polyoma middle T oncogene;
RANK, Receptor activator of nuclear factor kappa-B; RANKL, Receptor activator
of nuclear factor kappa-B ligand; RIP, receptor-interacting protein; TNF, tumour
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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Cite this article as: Shostak K, Chariot A: NF-κB, stem cells and breast cancer:
the links get stronger. Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214.
Shostak and Chariot Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:214
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