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Cdc42 overexpression induces hyperbranching in the developing mammary gland by enhancing cell migration

Kristi Bray1, Melissa Gillette1, Jeanette Young2, Elizabeth Loughran1, Melissa Hwang2, James Cooper Sears2 and Tracy Vargo-Gogola12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences and the Harper Cancer Research Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Indiana University School of Medicine and the Simon Cancer Center, 1234 Notre Dame Ave, South Bend, IN 46617, USA

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Breast Cancer Research 2013, 15:R91  doi:10.1186/bcr3487

Published: 30 September 2013



The Rho GTPase Cdc42 is overexpressed and hyperactivated in breast tumors compared to normal breast tissue. Cdc42 regulates key processes that are critical for mammary gland morphogenesis and become disrupted during the development, progression, and metastasis of breast cancer. However, the contribution of Cdc42 to normal and neoplastic mammary gland development in vivo remains poorly understood. We were therefore interested in investigating the effects of Cdc42 overexpression on mammary gland morphogenesis as a first step toward understanding how its overexpression may contribute to mammary tumorigenesis.


We developed a tetracycline-regulatable Cdc42 overexpression mouse model in which Cdc42 can be inducibly overexpressed in the developing mammary gland. The effects of Cdc42 overexpression during postnatal mammary gland development were investigated using in vivo and in vitro approaches, including morphometric analysis of wholemounted mammary glands, quantification of histological markers, and primary mammary epithelial cell (MEC) functional and biochemical assays.


Analysis of Cdc42-overexpressing mammary glands revealed abnormal terminal end bud (TEB) morphologies, characterized by hyperbudding and trifurcation, and increased side branching within the ductal tree. Quantification of markers of proliferation and apoptosis suggested that these phenotypes were not due to increased cell proliferation or survival. Rather, Cdc42 overexpressing MECs were more migratory and contractile and formed dysmorphic, invasive acini in three-dimensional cultures. Cdc42 and RhoA activities, phosphorylated myosin light chain, and MAPK signaling, which contribute to migration and invasion, were markedly elevated in Cdc42 overexpressing MECs. Interestingly, Cdc42 overexpressing mammary glands displayed several features associated with altered epithelial-stromal interactions, which are known to regulate branching morphogenesis. These included increased stromal thickness and collagen deposition, and stromal cells isolated from Cdc42 overexpressing mammary glands exhibited elevated mRNA expression of extracellular matrix proteins and remodeling enzymes.


These data suggest that Cdc42 overexpression disrupts mammary gland branching morphogenesis by altering Rho GTPase and MAPK signaling, leading to increased MEC contractility and migration in association with stromal alterations. Our studies provide insight into how aberrant Cdc42 expression may contribute to mammary tumorigenesis.