Stem cells are precursors for all mammary epithelia, including ductal and alveolar epithelia, and myoepithelial cells. In vivo mammary epithelia reside in a tissue context and interact with their milieu via receptors such as integrins. Extracellular matrix receptors coordinate important cellular signalling platforms, of which integrins are the central architects. We have previously shown that integrins are required for mammary epithelial development and function, including survival, cell cycle, and polarity, as well as for the expression of mammary-specific genes. In the present study we looked at the role of integrins in mammary epithelial stem cell self-renewal.
We used an in vitro stem cell assay with primary mouse mammary epithelial cells isolated from genetically altered mice. This involved a 3D organoid assay, providing an opportunity to distinguish the stem cell- or luminal progenitor-driven organoids as structures with solid or hollow appearances, respectively.
We demonstrate that integrins are essential for the maintenance and self-renewal of mammary epithelial stem cells. Moreover integrins activate the Rac1 signalling pathway in stem cells, which leads to the stimulation of a Wnt pathway, resulting in expression of β-catenin target genes such as Axin2 and Lef1.
Integrin/Rac signalling has a role in specifying the activation of a canonical Wnt pathway that is required for mammary epithelial stem cell self-renewal.