Linkage of progestin and epidermal growth factor signaling: Phosphorylation of progesterone receptors mediates transcriptional hypersensitivity and increased ligand-independent breast cancer cell growth

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Progesterone receptor (PR) action is linked to epidermal growth factor (EGF) initiated signaling pathways at multiple levels; mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) are key mediators of this important cross-talk. Herein, we probed the effects of EGF on PR function and regulation of breast cancer cell growth. EGF stimulated rapid and transient phosphorylation of PR-B Ser294 relative to persistent phosphorylation of this site induced by the synthetic progestin, R5020. EGF induced nuclear translocation and DNA binding of unliganded wild-type, but not mutant PRs containing an Ala at position 294 (S294A). However, EGF alone induced little to no PR-B transcriptional activity; S294A PR-B was transcriptionally impaired. In contrast, pretreatment of cells with EGF (30 min) significantly increased the potency and efficacy of wild-type, but not S294A PR transcriptional activity in response to progestin, and enhanced ligand-dependent downregulation of wild-type but not S294A PR. Replacement of Ser294 with aspartic acid (S294D) to mimic phosphorylation at this site decreased receptor stability and, as predicted, heightened progestin-induced transcription relative to wild-type PR-B. RT-PCR demonstrated the Ser294 phosphorylation-dependence of selected PR target genes (TGFα and HB-EGF). Surprisingly, PR-B expressing cells growing in soft agar were highly responsive to EGF or progestin, and this was further stimulated by the combination of both hormones. Cells expressing S294A PR exhibited reduced soft agar growth, and were also sensitive to R5020 alone, but failed to respond to EGF. These results suggest that PR Ser294 is an important “sensor” for growth factor inputs that affects PR function and breast cancer cell growth in the absence of progestin or in the presence of low or “sub-threshold” progestin concentrations. PR function likely contributes to breast cancer progression when EGFR family members or their ligands are overexpressed, a condition that predicts low abundance, but highly active and nuclear PR.

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