Dysregulated expression of Fau and MELK is associated with poor prognosis in breast cancer.
INTRODUCTION: Programmed cell death through apoptosis plays an essential role in the hormone-regulated physiological turnover of mammary tissue. Failure of this active gene-dependent process is central both to the development of breast cancer and to the appearance of the therapy-resistant cancer cells that produce clinical relapse. Functional expression cloning in two independent laboratories has identified Finkel-Biskis-Reilly murine sarcoma virus-associated ubiquitously expressed gene (Fau) as a novel apoptosis regulator and candidate tumour suppressor. Fau modifies apoptosis-controller Bcl-G, which is also a key target for candidate oncoprotein maternal embryonic leucine zipper kinase (MELK). METHODS: We have used RNA interference to downregulate Fau and Bcl-G expression, both simultaneously and independently, in breast cancer cells in vitro to determine the importance of their roles in apoptosis. Expression of Fau, Bcl-G and MELK was measured by quantitative RT-PCR in breast cancer tissue and in matched breast epithelial tissue from the same patients. Expression data of these genes obtained using microarrays from a separate group of patients were related to patient survival in Kaplan-Meier analyses. RESULTS: siRNA-mediated downregulation of either Fau or Bcl-G expression inhibited apoptosis, and the inhibition produced by combining the two siRNAs was consistent with control of Bcl-G by Fau. Fau expression is significantly reduced in breast cancer tissue and this reduction is associated with poor patient survival, as predicted for a candidate breast cancer tumour suppressor. In addition, MELK expression is increased in breast cancer tissue and this increase is also associated with poor patient survival, as predicted for a candidate oncogene. Bcl-G expression is reduced in breast cancer tissue but decreased Bcl-G expression showed no correlation with survival, indicating that the most important factors controlling Bcl-G activity are post-translational modification (by Fau and MELK) rather than the rate of transcription of Bcl-G itself. CONCLUSIONS: The combination of in vitro functional studies with the analysis of gene expression in clinical breast cancer samples indicates that three functionally interconnected genes, Fau, Bcl-G and MELK, are crucially important in breast cancer and identifies them as attractive targets for improvements in breast cancer risk prediction, prognosis and therapy.