Overall, our data highlight that whereas EZH2 and BMI1 may function in a 'linear' pathway in normal development, their overexpression has different functional consequences for breast tumourigenesis.
We have analysed the expression of EZH2 and BMI1 in a well-characterised dataset of 295 human breast cancer samples.
PolycombGroup (PcG) proteins maintain gene repression through histone modifications and have been implicated in stem cell regulation and cancer. EZH2 is part of Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2) and trimethylates H3K27. This histone mark recruits the BMI1-containing PRC1 that silences the genes marked by PRC2. Based on their role in stem cells, EZH2 and BMI1 have been predicted to contribute to a poor outcome for cancer patients.
Interestingly, although EZH2 overexpression correlates with a poor prognosis in breast cancer, BMI1 overexpression correlates with a good outcome. Although this may reflect transformation of different cell types, we also observed a functional difference. The PcG-target genes INK4A and ARF are not expressed in tumours with high BMI1, but they are expressed in tumours with EZH2 overexpression. ARF expression results in tumour protein P53 (TP53) activation, and we found a significantly higher proportion of TP53 mutations in tumours with high EZH2. This may explain why tumours with high EZH2 respond poorly to therapy, in contrast to tumours with high BMI1.