In vivo, normal mammary epithelial cells utilize hemidesmosome attachment devices to adhere to stroma. However, analyses of a potential role for hemidesmosomes and their components in mammary epithelial tissue morphogenesis have never been attempted. MCF-10A cells are a spontaneously immortalized line derived from mammary epithelium and possess a number of characteristics of normal mammary epithelial cells including expression of hemidesmosomal associated proteins such as the two bullous pemphigoid antigens, alpha 6 beta 4 integrin and its ligand laminin-5. More importantly, MCF-10A cells readily assemble mature hemidesmosomes when plated onto uncoated substrates. When maintained on matrigel, like their normal breast epithelial cell counterparts, MCF-10A cells undergo a branching morphogenesis and assemble hemidesmosomes at sites of cell-matrigel interaction. Function blocking antibodies specific for human laminin-5 and the alpha subunits of its two known receptors (alpha 3 beta 1 and alpha 6 beta 4 integrin) not only inhibit hemidesmosome assembly by MCF-10A cells but also impede branching morphogenesis induced by matrigel. Our results imply that the hemidesmosome, in particular those subunits comprising its laminin-5/integrin ‘backbone’, play an important role in morphogenetic events. We discuss these results in light of recent evidence that hemidesmosomes are sites involved in signal transduction.

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