Cancer-associated fibroblast-derived Gremlin 1 promotes breast cancer progression

Jiang Ren, Marcel Smid, Josephine Iaria, Daniela C F Salvatori, Hans van Dam, Hong Jian Zhu, John W M Martens, Peter Ten Dijke*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) have been reported to maintain epithelial integrity and to antagonize the transforming growth factor β (TGFβ)-induced epithelial to mesenchymal transition. The expression of soluble BMP antagonists is dysregulated in cancers and interrupts proper BMP signaling in breast cancer.

METHODS: In this study, we mined the prognostic role of BMP antagonists GREMLIN 1 (GREM1) in primary breast cancer tissues using in-house and publicly available datasets. We determined which cells express GREM1 RNA using in situ hybridization (ISH) on a breast cancer tissue microarray. The effects of Grem1 on the properties of breast cancer cells were assessed by measuring the mesenchymal/stem cell marker expression and functional cell-based assays for stemness and invasion. The role of Grem1 in breast cancer-associated fibroblast (CAF) activation was measured by analyzing the expression of fibroblast markers, phalloidin staining, and collagen contraction assays. The role of Grem1 in CAF-induced breast cancer cell intravasation and extravasation was studied by utilizing xenograft zebrafish breast cancer (co-) injection models.

RESULTS: Expression analysis of clinical breast cancer datasets revealed that high expression of GREM1 in breast cancer stroma is correlated with a poor prognosis regardless of the molecular subtype. The large majority of human breast cancer cell lines did not express GREM1 in vitro, but breast CAFs did express GREM1 both in vitro and in vivo. Transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) secreted by breast cancer cells, and also inflammatory cytokines, stimulated GREM1 expression in CAFs. Grem1 abrogated bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)/SMAD signaling in breast cancer cells and promoted their mesenchymal phenotype, stemness, and invasion. Moreover, Grem1 production by CAFs strongly promoted the fibrogenic activation of CAFs and promoted breast cancer cell intravasation and extravasation in co-injection xenograft zebrafish models.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results demonstrated that Grem1 is a pivotal factor in the reciprocal interplay between breast cancer cells and CAFs, which promotes cancer cell invasion. Targeting Grem1 could be beneficial in the treatment of breast cancer patients with high Grem1 expression.

Original languageEnglish
Article number109
JournalBreast Cancer Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Sept 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Animals
  • Bone Morphogenetic Proteins/antagonists & inhibitors
  • Breast Neoplasms/genetics
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts/metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Culture Media, Conditioned/metabolism
  • Cytokines/metabolism
  • Disease Progression
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition
  • Female
  • Gene Expression
  • Humans
  • Intercellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins/genetics
  • Mammary Neoplasms, Experimental
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells/pathology
  • Phosphorylation
  • Prognosis
  • Signal Transduction
  • Smad Proteins/metabolism
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta/antagonists & inhibitors
  • Zebrafish


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