Introduction: Triple-negative breast cancers, particularly the claudin-low subtype, are highly aggressive and exhibit increased tumor-initiating cell (TIC) characteristics. In this study, we demonstrate that vascular endothelial growth factor C (VEGF-C) is highly expressed in the claudin-low breast cancer subtype and also that it mediates tumor progression, not only through its role in lymphangiogenesis but also through regulating TIC characteristics and the response to reactive oxygen species (ROS). Methods: VEGF C expression was examined in breast cancer subtypes, and a VEGF C expression signature was derived. VEGF C expression and/or its associated signature was correlated with TIC and chemoresistance signatures. In vitro and in vivo assays were performed to determine whether VEGF-C expression alters TIC characteristics and the response of breast cancer cells to chemotherapy and oxidative stress. Array analysis was used to identify a downstream effector of VEGF-C, superoxide dismutase 3 (Sod3), which was tested for its involvement in VEGF-C-mediated resistance to oxidative stress and enhancement of in vivo metastasis. The VEGF-C-associated receptor neuropilin 2 (Nrp2) was knocked down to determine whether it is required for the observed effects of VEGF-C. Expression of VEGF C and Sod3 was assessed in human breast cancers. Results: VEGF C is highly expressed in claudin-low breast cancers, and VEGF C and the VEGF C signature are associated with TIC-related gene signatures. VEGF-C-knockdown in mammary carcinoma cells decreases TIC properties in vitro and in vivo, sensitizing cells to oxidative stress and chemotherapy. We identified Sod3 as a target of VEGF-C in breast cancer cells by demonstrating that it is required for VEGF-C-mediated cell survival in response to oxidative stress and for VEGF-C-mediated metastasis. We demonstrate that Nrp2 is the VEGF-C-associated receptor that mediates alterations in Sod3 expression and the response of tumor cells to oxidative stress. We show that VEGF C and Sod3 are positively associated in human breast cancer. Conclusions: We describe a novel mechanism by which VEGF-C contributes to metastasis via its ability to enhance TIC-associated characteristics, particularly the response to ROS. We identified Sod3 as a critical mediator of VEGF-C-induced metastasis, and we provide evidence that the VEGF-C-Sod3 axis plays a role in human breast cancers.
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