Although the α6β1 integrin has been implicated in the function of breast and other cancer stem cells (CSCs), little is known about its regulation and relationship to mechanisms involved in the genesis of CSCs. We report that a CD44high/CD24low population, enriched for CSCs, is comprised of distinct epithelial and mesenchymal populations that differ in expression of the two α6 cytoplasmic domain splice variants: α6A and α6B. α6Bβ1 expression defines the mesenchymal population and is necessary for CSC function, a function that cannot be executed by α6A integrins. The generation of α6Bβ1 is tightly controlled and occurs as a consequence of an autocrine vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) signaling that culminates in the transcriptional repression of a key RNA-splicing factor. These data alter our understanding of how α6β1 contributes to breast cancer, and they resolve ambiguities regarding the use of total α6 (CD49f) expression as a biomarker for CSCs.
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