Obesity represents a risk factor for breast cancer development and therapy resistance, but the molecular players underling these links are unclear. Here, we identify a role for the obesity-cytokine leptin in sustaining aromatase inhibitor (AI) resistant growth and progression in breast cancer. Using as experimental models MCF-7 breast cancer cells surviving long-term treatment with the AI anastrozole (AnaR) and Ana-sensitive counterparts, we found that AnaR cells expressed higher levels of leptin and its receptors (ObR) along with a constitutive activation of downstream effectors. Accordingly, leptin signaling inhibition reduced only AnaR cell growth and motility, highlighting the existence of an autocrine loop in mechanisms governing drug-resistant phenotypes. In agreement with ObR overexpression, increasing doses of leptin were able to stimulate to a greater extent growth and migration in AnaR than sensitive cells. Moreover, leptin contributed to enhanced crosstalk between AnaR cells and macrophages within the tumor microenvironment. Indeed, AnaR, through leptin secretion, modulated macrophage profiles and increased macrophage motility through CXCR4 signaling, as evidenced by RNA-sequencing, real-time PCR, and immunoblotting. Reciprocally, activated macrophages increased AnaR cell growth and motility in coculture systems. In conclusion, acquired AI resistance is accompanied by the development of a leptin-driven phenotype, highlighting the potential clinical benefit of targeting this cytokine network in hormone-resistant breast cancers, especially in obese women.
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