Interplay between desmoglein2 and hypoxia controls metastasis in breast cancer

Po Hao Chang, Min Che Chen, Ya Ping Tsai, Grace Y.T. Tan, Pang Hung Hsu, Yung Ming Jeng, Yi Fang Tsai, Muh Hwa Yang, Wendy W. Hwang-Verslues*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Metastasis is the major cause of cancer death. An increased level of circulating tumor cells (CTCs), metastatic cancer cells that have intravasated into the circulatory system, is particularly associated with colonization of distant organs and poor prognosis. However, the key factors required for tumor cell dissemination and colonization remain elusive. We found that high expression of desmoglein2 (DSG2), a component of desmosome-mediated intercellular adhesion complexes, promoted tumor growth, increased the prevalence of CTC clusters, and facilitated distant organ colonization. The dynamic regulation of DSG2 by hypoxia was key to this process, as down-regulation of DSG2 in hypoxic regions of primary tumors led to elevated epithelial−mesenchymal transition (EMT) gene expression, allowing cells to detach from the primary tumor and undergo intravasation. Subsequent derepression of DSG2 after intravasation and release of hypoxic stress was associated with an increased ability to colonize distant organs. This dynamic regulation of DSG2 was mediated by Hypoxia-Induced Factor1α (HIF1α). In contrast to its more widely observed function to promote expression of hypoxia-inducible genes, HIF1α repressed DSG2 by recruitment of the polycomb repressive complex 2 components, EZH2 and SUZ12, to the DSG2 promoter in hypoxic cells. Consistent with our experimental data, DSG2 expression level correlated with poor prognosis and recurrence risk in breast cancer patients. Together, these results demonstrated the importance of DSG2 expression in metastasis and revealed a mechanism by which hypoxia drives metastasis.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2014408118
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - 19 Jan 2021


  • Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) | breast cancer | metastasis | desmoglein2 (DSG2) | HIF1α


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