FAP-α (Fibroblast activation protein-α) is involved in the control of human breast cancer cell line growth and motility via the FAK pathway
© Jia et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 29 April 2013
Accepted: 15 May 2014
Published: 21 May 2014
Fibroblast Activation Protein alpha (FAP-α) or seprase is an integral membrane serine peptidase. Previous work has not satisfactorily explained both the suppression and promotion effects that have been observed in cancer. The purpose of this work was to investigate the role of FAP-α in human breast cancer. Expression of FAP-α was characterized in primary tumour samples and in cell lines, along with the effects of FAP-α expression on in vitro growth, invasion, attachment and migration. Furthermore the potential interaction of FAP-α with other signalling pathways was investigated.
FAP-α was significantly increased in patients with poor outcome and survival. In vitro results showed that breast cancer cells over expressing FAP-α had increased growth ability and impaired migratory ability. The growth of MDA-MB-231 cells and the adhesion and invasion ability of both MCF-7 cells and MDA-MB-231 cells were not dramatically influenced by FAP-α expression. Over-expression of FAP-α resulted in a reduction of phosphorylated focal adhesion kinase (FAK) level in both cells cultured in normal media and serum-free media. An inhibitor to FAK restored the reduced motility ability of both MCF-7exp cells and MDA-MB-231exp cells and prevented the change in phosphorylated FAK levels. However, inhibitors to PI3K, ERK, PLCϒ, NWASP, ARP2/3, and ROCK had no influence this.
FAP-α in significantly associated with poor outcome in patients with breast cancer. In vitro, FAP-α promotes proliferation and inhibits migration of breast cancer cells, potentially by regulating the FAK pathway. These results suggest FAP-α could be a target for future therapies.
KeywordsFAP-α FAK Breast Cancer Growth Migration
Fibroblast Activation Protein alpha (FAP-α) or Seprase is a member of the serine integral membrane peptidases (SIMPs) family which also includes prolylendopeptidase, dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPPIV or CD26), and dipeptidyl peptidase IIX. These peptidases are inducible, specific for proline-containing peptides, and are active on the cell surface 1, 2]. Previous studies have demonstrated that FAP-α has an important role in development of cancers by modifying bioactive of substrate peptides and their cellular functions. However, the tissue distribution and function of FAP-α remains unclear.
FAP-α has been shown to be transiently expressed in certain normal fetal mesenchymal tissues, during wound healing and in reactive stroma responding to most o sarcomas and epithelial cancers including breast cancer, oesophageal cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic adenocarcinoma 3–6]. Normal adult tissues, haematopoietic cells as well as malignant epithelial cells are generally FAP-α -negative. However other studies have shown that FAP-α expression is not confined to stromal fibroblasts but that it is also expressed in some epithelial malignant cells. Kelly et al. 7] analyzed paraffin-embedded breast-cancer sections and revealed the expression of FAP-α in cancer cells. A study by Okada K et al. 8] showed that FAP-α immunoreactivity was recognized in both intestinal-type and diffuse type of gastric cancer accompanied with different levels of protein expression when detected by immunoblotting. FAP-α immunoreactivity was observed in some microinvasive and all invasive cervical carcinomas with various degrees of FAP-α -positive stromal cells 9]. Recently, it has been demonstrated that FAP-α is highly expressed on the surface of glioma cells, bone and soft tissue tumour cells 10, 11].
There are also contradictive results about the function of FAP-α, in that it could act as both a tumour suppressor and tumour promoter. It has been observed that the expression of FAP-α decreased the tumourigenicity of mouse melanoma cells in animals and restored contact inhibition and growth factor dependence 12]. FAP-α has also been shown to suppress growth of NSCLC cells, accompanied by the increased expression of cell surface DPPIV 13]. Furthermore, increased stromal expression of FAP-α is shown to be associated with longer survival of breast cancer patients 3]. In contrast, it has also been shown that FAP-α can also act as a tumour promoter. Anti-sense suppression of FAP-α in human breast cancer cell lines MDA-MB-435 and MDA-MB-436, which normally express FAP-α rendered these cells sensitive to serum starvation, whilst high levels of FAP-α expression were less dependent on exogenous serum factors for growth and gained independence from normal growth regulatory controls 14]. The human breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231 expressing FAP-α grew more rapidly and was produced highly vascular tumours in vivo 15]. Mice inoculated with FAP-transfected HEK293 cells were two to four times more likely to develop tumours compared with vector-transfected HEK293 controls, with a 10- to 40-fold enhancement in tumour growth 16]. Antibody abrogation of FAP-α enzymatic activity by site-directed mutagenesis of FAP-α was shown to result in a significant reduction in FAP-driven tumour growth in vivo 17].
A recent investigation suggested that FAP-α promoted tumour growth and invasion of breast cancer cells might be through non-enzymatic functions. Huang et al. 18] introduced different inhibitors of prolyl peptidases including Val-boroPro (talabostat); Glu-boroPro (PT-630); or 1-[[(3-hydroxy-1-adamantyl)amino]acetyl]-2-cyano-(S)-pyrrolidine (LAF-237) to investigate the function of FAP-α on breast cancer cells in a SCID mice model. Their results showed that PT-630 and LAF-237 did not slow the growth of tumours produced by any of the three breast cancer cell lines expressing FAP-α. Talabostat slightly decreased the growth rates of the FAP-α -expressing tumours but the growth retardation was likely not related to the inhibition of FAP-α or the related post-prolyl peptidase dipeptidyl peptidase IV. Breast cancer cells expressing a catalytically inactive mutant of FAP-α (FAPS624A) also produced tumours that grew rapidly 18]. In another study, the over-expression of FAP-α in the human hepatic stellate cell (HSC) cell line LX-2 increased cell adhesion, migration and invasion. However the proteolytic activity of FAP-α was not necessary for these functions 19]. These findings imply that in addition to its enzymatic functions, FAP-α might have important non-enzymatic functions involved in regulating the development and spread of cancer cells.
Therefore, in this study we analyzed the function of FAP-α in breast cancer cells with the intention to explore the non-enzymatic function of FAP-α. Our hypothesis is that as a membrane protein, FAP-α might participate in the regulation of other membrane molecules or signaling pathways by which exert its influence on tumour cells.
Materials and cell lines
Human breast cancer cells, MCF7 and MDA-MB-231 were from the ATCC (American Type Cell Collection, Manassas, VA, USA). Fresh frozen human breast tissues were collected from University Hospital of Wales under the approval of the local ethical committee, obtained immediately after surgery and stored at -80°C until used.
Antibodies to human FAP-α (sc-100528 and ab5066), FAK (sc-1680) and pFAK (sc-11765-R were from Santa-Cruz Biotechnologies, Inc. (Santa Cruz, CA, USA or Abcam, Cambridge, UK). ROCK inhibitor was from Santa-Cruz Biotechnologies, Inc. (Santa Cruz, CA, USA), ERK inhibitor, Wortmannin, and Wiskostatin were from Calbiochem (Nottingham, UK). Matrigel (reconstituted basement membrane) was purchased from Collaborative Research Products (Bedford, MA, USA). Transwell plates equipped with a porous insert (pore size 8 μm) were from Becton Dickinson Labware (Oxford, UK). RT-PCR reagents and plasmid extraction kits were from Sigma (St. Louis, MO, USA).
Construction of expression vector of human FAP-α and transfection of breast cancer cells
Touch-down PCR was used to generate the cDNA of FAP-α from human prostate tissues with primers 5’-TTAGTCTGACAAAGAGAAACACTG and 5’-ATGAAGACTTGGGTAAAAATCG. The cDNA of FAP-α was subsequently cloned into a pEF6/V5-His vector (Invitrogen, Paisley, Scotland, UK). The new plasmid, named pEF6/V5- FAP was amplified in E. coli and verified by PCR reaction by using a pair of different primers 5’-AGAGCTTTAGCAATCTGTGC and 5’-TCCCTTGCTAATTCAAGTGT.
Breast cancer cells MCF7 and MDA-MB-231 were cultured in DMEM media. The cells were transfected with plasmid pEF6/V5- FAP-α by electroporation. Following selection of transfected cells with blasticidin (used at 5 μg/ml) and verification by PCR, the stably transfected cells were established: FAP-α over-expression cells MCF7exp and MDA-MB-231 exp, plasmid only control cells MCR7pef and MDA-MB-231pef and the wild type cells MCF7wt and MDA-MB-231wt. The transfected cells thus created were always kept in a maintenance medium which contained 0.5 μg/ml blasticidin. Pooled populations of genetically manipulated cells from multiple clones were used in the subsequent studies.
In vitro cell function including cell growth, adhesion, invasion, and migration assay
Cell growth assay: cells were plated into 96-well plated at 2,000 cells/well. Cells were fixed in 10% formaldehyde on the day of plating, and the day3 and day 5 subsequently. 0.5% crystal violet (w/v) was used to stain cells. Following washing, the stained crystal violet was dissolved with 10% (v/v) acetic acid and the absorbance was determined at a wavelength of 540 nm using an ELx800 spectrophotometer (Bio-Tek, ELx800). Absorbance represents the cell number.
Adhesion assay: a 96-well plate was pre-coated with 5 μg of Matrigel and allowed to dry overnight. Following rehydration with serum-free media, 20,000 cells were seeded into each well. After 40 min of incubation, non-adherent cells were washed off using BSS buffer. The remaining cells were fixed with 4% formalin and stained with 0.5% crystal violet. The number of adherent cells was then counted under microscopy.
Invasion assay: transwell inserts (upper chamber) with 8 μm pore size were coated with 50 μg of Matrigel (Collaborative Research Products, Bedford, Massachusetts, USA) and air-dried. Following rehydration with serum-free media, cells were seeded at a density of 30,000 per insert. After 3 day’s incubation, cells that had migrated through the matrix and adhered to the other side of the insert were fixed in 4% formalin, stained with 0.5% (weight/volume) crystal violet, and counted under a microscope.
Migration/wounding assay: cells were seeded at a density of 250,000 per well into a 24-well plate and allowed to reach confluence by overnight culture. The monolayer of cells was then scraped with a fine gauge needle to create a wound of approximately 200 μm. The movement of cells to close the wound was recorded for 4 hours. The movement of cells were analyzed by tracking cell boundary, for each frame in a series, using the Optimas 6.0 motion analysis (Meyer Instruments, Houston, Texas).
Electric Cell-substrate Impedance Sensing (ECIS) based cell adhesion and motility assay
Electric Cell-substrate Impedance Sensing (ECIS, Applied Biophysics Inc, Troy, NY, USA) instrument ECIS Zθ (Theta) was also used to record both cell adhesion and migration abilities which were shown here as the changes of resistance. 96W1E arrays were incubated with complete medium for 1 hour. 50,000 cells of breast cancer cells were seeded into each well. The electric changes were continuously monitored for up to 24 hr while an electric wounding was performed after 6 hours. Multiple conditions of frequency 1000 Hz, 2000Hz, 4,000 Hz, and 8,000 Hz were used to screen the nature of resistance changes.
Influence of inhibitors of signalling pathway on adhesion and migration of breast cancer cells by ECIS assay
In order to explore the potential crosstalk of FAP-α and other adhesion and migration associated signalling pathway. We introduced inhibitors of FAK, ROCK, PLC-γ, and PI3K pathway in ECIS based cell adhesion and motility assay. 50,000 cells of breast cancer cells were suspended in 200 ul media with inhibitors of FAK, ROCK, PLC-γ, and PI3K respectively and the final concentration was 100 nm. The electric changes were continuously monitored for up to 24 hr under multiple condition of frequency while an electric wounding was performed after 6 hours.
Flow cytometric analysis of in breast cancer cells
In this study, we utilised the Vybrant® Apoptosis Assay Kit (Invitrogen, Inc., Paisley, UK) to perform the apoptosis assay. Cells including those suspended in the culture medium were harvested and washed in cold BSS buffer. After centrifugation, the cell pellet was resuspended in 1X annexin-binding buffer. Determine the cell density and dilute in 1X annexin-binding buffer to about 1 × 106 cells/ml. 5 μl of FITC annexin V and 1 μl of the PI working solution (100 μg/ml) were added to each 100 μl of cell suspension and incubated at room temperature for 5 min. After the incubation, 400 μl of 1X annexin-binding buffer was added, mixed gently and stored on ice. Cells were analyzed using the Partec CyFlow® SL flow cytometer and FlowMax software package (Partec GmbH, Munster, Germany), measuring the fluorescence emission at 530 nm and >575 nm.
Immunofluorescence staining in breast cancer cells
20,000 cells were seeded in each well of a 16-well chamber and cultured overnight. Then cells were fixed in 100% ethanol for 30 minutes. After blocked in a 10% horse serum solution, cells were incubated with primary antibodies overnight and were incubated for 30 min in the secondary FITC- and TRITC conjugated antibodies. Following extensive washings, the slides were mounted using Fluorsave™ mounting media (Calbiochem, Nottingham, UK) and allowed to harden overnight in the refrigerator before being examined. Slides were examined using an Olympus fluorescence microscope and photographed using a Hamamatsu digital camera. The images were documented using the Cellysis software (Olympus, Bristol, England, UK).
Western blotting and Immunoprecipitation
To detect the expression level of FAP-α in breast cancer cell lines, confluent cells were pelleted and then lysed using a lysis buffer containing 2.4 mg/ml Tris, 4.4 mg/ml NaCl, 5 mg/ml sodium deoxycholate, 20 μg/ml sodium azide, 1.5% Triton, 100 μg/ml PMSF, 1 μg/ml leupeptin, and 1 μg/ml aprotinin, for 45 min at 4°C. After lysis and centrifugation at 13,000 rpm for 15 min, protein concentrations for each sample were measured using an improved Lowary assay (DC Protein Assay kit, Bio-Rad). The samples were adjusted to equal concentrations with sample buffer and then boiled at 100°C for 5 min, before separated on a 10% polyacrylamide gel. Following electrophoresis, these separated proteins were transferred onto nitrocellulose sheets and blocked in 10% skimmed milk (w/v in TBS) for overnight. The membranes were then probed with the anti-FAP-α, anti-FAK antibodies, and anti-GAPDH antibody as internal control, followed by a peroxidase-conjugated secondary antibody. Protein bands were visualised using an ECL system (Amersham, UK), and photographed using an UVITech imager (UVITech, Inc). The proteins obtained from breast cancer cells were immunoprecipitated with 10 μl of anti-FAP-α and anti-FAK antibodies for 2 h at 4°C followed by the addition of 20 μl of protein A/G-agarose beads overnight at 4°C. The resultant pellet was subjected to SDS-PAGE and Western blotting by antibodies against the FAP-α and phosphatised FAK.
Human breast tissues
A total of 133 breast samples were obtained from breast cancer patients (106 breast cancer tissues and 27 associated background or related normal tissue). The anonymised breast tissue samples were obtained within the guidelines of the appropriate ethics committee (Bro Taf Health Authority 01/4303 and 01/4046). Informed patient consent was not applicable in this instance (as stated in the Human Tissue Act 2004, UK). The pathologist verified normal background and cancer specimens, and it was confirmed that the background samples were free from tumour deposit. These tissues after mastectomy were immediately frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Real-time quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (Q-PCR)
The assay was based on the Amplifluor system. It was used to detect and quantify transcript copy number of FAP-α in tumour and background samples. Primers were designed by Beacon Designer software, which included complementary sequence to universal Z probe (Intergen, Inc.). Each reaction contains 1 pmol reverse primer (which has the Z sequence), 10 pmol of FAM-tagged universal Z probe (Intergen, Inc.) and cDNA (equivalent to 50 ng RNA). Sample cDNA was amplified and quantified over a large number of shorter cycles using an iCyclerIQ thermal cycler and detection software (BioRad laboratories, Hammelhempstead, UK) under the following conditions: an initial 5 minute 94°C period followed by 60 cycles of 94°C for 10 seconds, 55°C for 15 seconds and 72°C for 20 seconds. Detection of GAPDH copy number within these samples was later used to allow further standardisation and normalisation of the samples.
All of the results are expressed as the means ± S.E. Cell growth, wounding or migration, adhesion, and invasion formation was analyzed using a Student's t test on log normalized data or Mann Witney for patient tissues (where required).
Expression of FAP-α in breast tumour is correlated with patient prognosis and survival
Patient population data of samples included in the analyses
Grade 1 (22)
Grade 2 (40)
Grade 3 (15)
NPI 1 (43)
NPI 2 (37)
TNM 1 (22)
TNM 2 (37)
TNM 3 (7)
TNM 4 (4)
Disease free (86)
Metastatic disease (6)
Local recurrence (5)
Death from breast cancer (16)
All poor outcomes (27)
Expression of FAP-α in breast cancer cell lines
Over-expression of FAP-α promotes growth of MCF-7 cells and has no effect on apoptosis
Over-expression of FAP-α impairs human breast cancer cell migration
FAK inhibitor could restore the impaired motility ability of breast cancer cells
Over-expression of FAP-α accompanied with a reduction of phosphorylated FAK
Fibroblast Activation Protein alpha (FAP-α) is an integral membrane serine peptidase. It has been shown that it plays an important role in tumour proliferation, migration, invasion and angiogenesis. Recent studies have provided convincing evidence that targeting FAP-α is a promising method in both diagnosis and treatment of cancer. A combination of FAP-α with other serum markers such as CEA, CYFRA 21–1, OPN, ferritin, and anti-p53 had comparable sensitivity with faecal immunochemical testing (FIT) for the early detection of colorectal cancer 21]. Immunotherapy targeting FAP-α could inhibit tumour growth and increases survival in a murine colon cancer model. A DNA vaccine directed against FAP-α could significantly suppressed primary tumour and pulmonary metastases through CD8+ T-cell-mediated killing in tumour-bearing mice 22]. An antibody-maytansinoid conjugate, monoclonal antibody (mAb) FAP5-DM1 targeted at a shared epitope of human, mouse, and cynomolgus monkey FAP, could induced long-lasting inhibition of tumour growth and complete regressions in xenograft models of lung, pancreas, and head and neck cancers with no signs of intolerability 23]. The clinical impact of FAP-α was also tested using Val-boroPro (Talabostat), the first clinical inhibitor of FAP-α enzymatic activity, in a phase II study of patients with metastatic colorectal cancer. The results showed that minimal clinical activity was also observed in patients with previously treated metastatic colorectal cancer 24]. Our data has shown that in patients with breast cancer, FAP-α is significantly over-expressed in those with poor prognosis and is inversely related to both overall and disease-free survival. However, until now, there is still no conclusion as to the relation between FAP-α expression and function.
Active FAP-α is a 170 kDa homodimer that contains two N-glycosylated 97 kDa subunits. The FAP-α monomer has C-terminal catalytic domains of serine proteases, a hydrophobic transmembrane segment and a short cytoplasmic tail 1, 25]. Studies of the mouse homologue have shown that alternative splicing and 3 distinct FAP-α splice variants had been detected in tissues 26]. An alternative spliced FAP-α was later identified in the human melanoma cell line LOX which encodes a truncated isoform which encodes a 239 amino acid polypeptide with a molecular weight of 27 kDa that precisely overlaps the carboxylterminal catalytic region of the wild type FAP-α 27]. In another study using a generated soluble recombinant FAP-α, it was found that in the presence of putative EDTA sensitive activators, FAP-α was converted into 70 kDa to 50 kDa shortened forms 28].
In our study, a 549 bp product of FAP-α could be amplified in both MCF7exp and MDA-MB-231exp cells while the western-blotting assay of FAP-α protein expression in breast cancer cells showed that a 30 kDa truncate was detected instead of the 97 kDa monomer and 170 kDa dimer. We presumed that it might be caused by the degradation of FAP-α protein or the use of antibodies that recognize, with varying affinity, different epitopes exhibited by FAP-α.
Some studies have suggested that FAP-α is expressed by stromal cells rather than cancer cells in epithelial malignant diseases; however other studies have demonstrated that FAP-α is also expressed in epithelial malignant cells such as breast cancer, gastric carcinoma, and cervical carcinoma 7, 8]. In our study, we analyzed the expression of FAP-α by PCR reaction and western-blot assay. The results showed that there was no amplification of FAP-α mRNA in both MCF7 and MDA-MB-231 wild type cells but a weak expression of FAP-α protein were detected in these cells by immunoblotting. Moreover, FAP-α was detected in BT-549 breast cancer cells. We tentatively suggest that the negative result in the earlier studies might be due to the comparative difference in staining intensity between the high expressions in stromal cells compared to the weaker expression of FAP-α in cancer cells.
Over-expression of FAP-α in fibroblasts and paracytes of cancer cells promotes tumour growth, invasion and metastasis by directly remodelling extracellular matrix and targeting fibroblast activation protein could inhibit tumour stromagenesis and growth. Furthermore, some clinical data has implied that patients with over-expression of FAP-α identified from stroma had a significantly poorer outcome 4, 29]. Again, there are also contradictive results regarding the function of FAP-α in that it could act as both a tumour suppressor and tumour promoter. Our results showed that overexpression of FAP-α could promote the growth of MCF7 cells, while no significant difference in proliferation was observed in MDA-MB-231exp cells compared with wild type and control cells. A previous study by Huang et al. 15] also d that MDA-MB-231 cells genetically expressing FAP-α grew at the same rate as control cells without the expression of FAP-α in vitro. However, when using a mouse model in vivo, MDA-MB-231 cells expressing FAP-α grew more rapidly and were highly vascular compared to control cells in vivo 15]. These results indicated that FAP-α could act as a tumour promoter and this tumour promotion effect was more noticeable in vivo.
The process of metastasis and invasion of tumour cells requires these cells to alter their ability to adhere or detach to both stromal cells and the extracellular matrix (ECM). Membrane Integrins play a crucial role in many aspects of tumour initiation and progression 30, 31]. Focal adhesion kinase (FAK), an intracellular tyrosine kinase recruited to the sites of integrin clustering or focal adhesions, functions as a major mediator of signal transduction by cell surface receptors including integrins, growth factor and cytokine receptors progression 31–33]. FAK has been shown to play a key role in the regulation of cell adhesion, migration, and invasion 33–35]. Our study discovered that over-expression of FAP-α resulted in decreasing adhesion and migration ability of MCF7 and MDA-MB-231 cells. However, an inhibitor of FAK could restore the reduced motility ability of both MCF-7exp cells and MDA-MB-231exp cells, while inhibitors to PI3K, ERK and ROCK had no influence on it. Furthermore, using an immunoprecipitation assay and protein samples extracted from cells cultured in normal media and serum-free media, we found that the over-expression of FAP-α was associated with a decrease in phosphorylated FAK protein under both normal culture and serum-free culture condition. Moreover, an inhibitor to FAK could eliminate this difference in phosphorylated FAK in all the MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cell lines. This implies that FAP-α might form a complex with the FAK protein and so reduce its phosphorylation, which thus results in reduction of adhesion and motility ability. Earlier work had shown that cells expressing FAP-α exhibited a decrease in FAK phosphorylation in a murine model 36]. It has been previously shown that depletion of FAP-α-expressing stromal cells can impair the growth of immunogenic tumours via a lymphocyte dependent mechanism and that inhibition of FAP-α using extracellular competitive inhibitors of dipeptidyl peptidases have been shown to contribute to impaired epithelial cancer growth via a FAP-α dependant mechanism 36–39]. Little is known about intracellular post-proline cleaving enzymes such as FAP-α in the context of tumour behaviour and growth compared to other extracellular proteases 40].
In conclusion, we report that FAP-α expression in patients with breast cancer is increased with poor prognosis and patient survival. In vitro data shows that this increased expression leads to decreased adhesion and migration of human breast cancer cells. Moreover, this was associated with increased growth. This effect appeared to be integrated with the phosphorylation status of FAK, which could be part of the control pathway by which FAP-α effects change in cancer cells. Further work is necessary to dissect the pathway in which FAP-α is involved.
Fibroblast Activation Protein-α
Focal adhesion kinase
Extracellular signal-regulated kinase
Phospholipase C -gamma
Neuronal wiskott Aldrich syndrome
Actin related proteins 2/3
Non small cell lung carcinoma
Severe combined immunodeficiency
Heat shock protein
Polymerase chain reaction
Dulbecco's Modified Eagle Medium
Electric cell-substrate impedence sensing
Buffered saline solution
Tetramethyl Rhodamine Isothiocyanate
Quantitative polymerase chain reaction
Glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase
Reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction
Carcino Embryonic Antigen
We would like to thank Cancer Research Wales, the Albert Hong Foundation and the Breast Cancer Hope Foundation for supporting this work.
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