Resistance to chemotherapy is a major obstacle for the effective treatment of breast cancer and is partially due to the presence of drug resistant stem cell-like side population (SP). Previous studies have shown elevated miR-125b is associated with chemoresistance and metastasis; however, the relationship between miR-125b and SP cells remains unknown. In this study, we isolated and characterized SP cells in a panel of breast cancer cell lines and primary cancer cells from breast cancer patients. SP cells showed cancer stem cells (CSCs) properties, including self-renewal, resistance to chemotherapy and high expression of stem cell markers. The percentage of SP cells was higher in chemotherapy resistant patients compared to that in chemotherapy responsive patients (5.8 ± 2.4% in non-responsive patients vs. 1.2 ± 0.5% in responsive patients, P = 0.012). Importantly, SP cells had higher level of miR-125b than NSP cells and the elevated miR-125b expression in chemoresistant cancer cells were due to high percentage of SP cells. Overexpression of miR-125b correlated with an increase in tumor SP and CSC property, whereas knockdown of miR-125b correlated with decreased incidence of SP. In addition, miR-125b overexpression in breast cancer cells induced epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT)-like cellular marker alteration, suggesting a potential mechanism of miR-125b in the regulation of cancer stem-like SP cells. Taken together, these results suggest an important role for miR-125b in breast cancer chemoresistance by maintaining cancer stem-like SP fraction, and raise the possibility that miR-125b may be a significant prognostic response marker for cancer therapy. J. Cell. Biochem. 114: 2248–2257, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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