Tumor-Associated Macrophages Regulate Murine Breast Cancer Stem Cells Through a Novel Paracrine EGFR/Stat3/Sox-2 Signaling Pathway§


  • Author contributions: Y.L.: conception, design and manuscript writing, and final approval of manuscript; R.A.R.: manuscript writing and final approval of manuscript; J.Y. and D.L.: collection of data and data analysis; C.C., Y.L., T.-H.C., R.X., and D.M.: collection of data. J.Y. and D.L. contributed equally to this article.

  • Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is found at the end of this article.

  • §

    First published online in STEM CELLSEXPRESS November 21, 2012.


The cancer stem cell (CSC) hypothesis has gained significant recognition as a descriptor of tumorigenesis. Additionally, tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) are known to promote growth and metastasis of breast cancer. However, it is not known whether TAMs mediate tumorigenesis through regulation of breast CSCs. Here, we report that TAMs promote CSC-like phenotypes in murine breast cancer cells by upregulating their expression of Sox-2. These CSC-like phenotypes were characterized by increased Sox-2, Oct-4, Nanog, AbcG2, and Sca-1 gene expression, in addition to increased drug-efflux capacity, resistance to chemotherapy, and increased tumorigenicity in vivo. Downregulation of Sox-2 in tumor cells by siRNA blocked the ability of TAMs to induce these CSC-like phenotypes and inhibited tumor growth in vivo. Furthermore, we identified a novel epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)/signal transducers and activators of transcription 3 (Stat3)/Sox-2 paracrine signaling pathway between macrophages and mouse breast cancer cells that is required for macrophage-induced upregulation of Sox-2 and CSC phenotypes in tumor cells. We showed that this crosstalk was effectively blocked by the small molecule inhibitors AG1478 or CDDO-Im against EGFR and Stat3, respectively. Therefore, our report identifies a novel role for TAMs in breast CSC regulation and establishes a rationale for targeting the EGFR/Stat3/Sox-2 signaling pathway for CSC therapy. STEM CELLS2013;31:248–258