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Drug resistance is one of the major obstacles for improving the prognosis of breast cancer patients. Increasing evidence has linked the association of aberrantly expressed microRNAs (miRNAs) with tumour development and progression as well as chemoresistance. Despite recent advances, there is still little known about the potential role and mechanism of miRNAs in breast cancer chemoresistance. Here we describe that 16 miRNAs were found to be significantly down-regulated and 11 up-regulated in drug-resistant breast cancer tissues compared with drug-sensitive tissues, using a miRNA microarray. The results also showed miR-489 to be one of the most down-regulated miRNAs in drug-resistant tissues and cell lines, as confirmed by miRNA microarray screening and real-time quantitative PCR. A decrease in miR-489 expression was associated with chemoresistance as well as lymph node metastasis, increased tumour size, advanced pTNM stage and poor prognosis in breast cancer. Functional analysis revealed that miR-489 increased breast cancer chemosensitivity and inhibited cell proliferation, migration and invasion, both in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, SPIN1, VAV3, BCL2 and AKT3 were found to be direct targets of miR-489. SPIN1 was significantly elevated in drug-resistant and metastatic breast cancer tissues and inversely correlated with miR-489 expression. High expression of SPIN1 was associated with higher histological grade, lymph node metastasis, advanced pTNM stage and positive progesterone receptor (PR) status. Increased SPIN1 expression enhanced cell migration and invasion, inhibited apoptosis and partially antagonized the effects of miR-489 in breast cancer. PIK3CA, AKT, CREB1 and BCL2 in the PI3K–Akt signalling pathway, demonstrated to be elevated in drug-resistant breast cancer tissues, were identified as downstream effectors of SPIN1. It was further found that either inhibition of SPIN1 or overexpression of miR-489 suppressed the PI3K–Akt signalling pathway. These data indicate that miR-489 could reverse the chemoresistance of breast cancer via the PI3K–Akt pathway by targeting SPIN1. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.