Research Papers:

TBX2 represses CST6 resulting in uncontrolled legumain activity to sustain breast cancer proliferation: a novel cancer-selective target pathway with therapeutic opportunities

Zenobia C. D'Costa, Catherine A. Higgins, Chee Wee Ong, Gareth Irwin, David Boyle, Darragh G. McArt, Karen McCloskey, Niamh E. Buckley, Nyree T. Crawford, Lalitha Thiagarajan, James T. Murray, Richard D. Kennedy, Karl A. Mulligan, Denis P. Harkin, David J.J. Waugh, Chris J. Scott, Manuel Salto-Tellez, Richard Williams and Paul B. Mullan _

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Oncotarget. 2014; 5:1609-1620. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.1707

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Zenobia C. D’Costa1, Catherine Higgins1, Chee Wee Ong1, Gareth W. Irwin1, David Boyle1, Darragh G. McArt1, Karen McCloskey1, Niamh E. Buckley1, Nyree T. Crawford1, Lalitha Thiagarajan3, James T. Murray2, Richard D. Kennedy1, Karl A. Mulligan4, D. Paul Harkin1, David J.J. Waugh1, Chris J. Scott5, Manuel Salto-Tellez1, Richard Williams1 and Paul B. Mullan1

1 Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK

2 Biomedical Science Institute, Trinity College Dublin, College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland

3 School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK

4 Northern Ireland Science Park, Belfast, UK

5 School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK


Paul B. Mullan, email:

Keywords: TBX2, CST6, LGMN, breast cancer

Received: December 16, 2013 Accepted:February 6, 2014 Published: February 8, 2014


TBX2 is an oncogenic transcription factor known to drive breast cancer proliferation. We have identified the cysteine protease inhibitor Cystatin 6 (CST6) as a consistently repressed TBX2 target gene, co-repressed through a mechanism involving Early Growth Response 1 (EGR1). Exogenous expression of CST6 in TBX2-expressing breast cancer cells resulted in significant apoptosis whilst non-tumorigenic breast cells remained unaffected. CST6 is an important tumor suppressor in multiple tissues, acting as a dual protease inhibitor of both papain-like cathepsins and asparaginyl endopeptidases (AEPs) such as Legumain (LGMN). Mutation of the CST6 LGMN-inhibitory domain completely abrogated its ability to induce apoptosis in TBX2-expressing breast cancer cells, whilst mutation of the cathepsin-inhibitory domain or treatment with a pan-cathepsin inhibitor had no effect, suggesting that LGMN is the key oncogenic driver enzyme. LGMN activity assays confirmed the observed growth inhibitory effects were consistent with CST6 inhibition of LGMN. Knockdown of LGMN and the only other known AEP enzyme (GPI8) by siRNA confirmed that LGMN was the enzyme responsible for maintaining breast cancer proliferation. CST6 did not require secretion or glycosylation to elicit its cell killing effects, suggesting an intracellular mode of action. Finally, we show that TBX2 and CST6 displayed reciprocal expression in a cohort of primary breast cancers with increased TBX2 expression associating with increased metastases. We have also noted that tumors with altered TBX2/CST6 expression show poor overall survival. This novel TBX2-CST6-LGMN signaling pathway, therefore, represents an exciting opportunity for the development of novel therapies to target TBX2 driven breast cancers.

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