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The cellular and molecular basis of stromal cell recruitment, activation and crosstalk in carcinomas is poorly understood, limiting the development of targeted anti-stromal therapies. In mouse models of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), Hh ligand produced by neoplastic cells reprogrammed cancer-associated fibroblast (CAF) gene expression, driving tumor growth and metastasis. Hh-activated CAFs upregulated expression of FGF5 and production of fibrillar collagen, leading to FGFR and FAK activation in adjacent neoplastic cells, which then acquired a stem-like, drug-resistant phenotype. Treatment with smoothened inhibitors (SMOi) reversed these phenotypes. Stromal treatment of TNBC patient-derived xenograft (PDX) models with SMOi downregulated the expression of cancer stem cell markers and sensitized tumors to docetaxel, leading to markedly improved survival and reduced metastatic burden. In the phase I clinical trial EDALINE, 3 of 12 patients with metastatic TNBC derived clinical benefit from combination therapy with the SMOi Sonidegib and docetaxel chemotherapy, with one patient experiencing a complete response. Markers of pathway activity correlated with response. These studies identify Hh signaling to CAFs as a novel mediator of cancer stem cell plasticity and an exciting new therapeutic target in TNBC.

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