Both epidemiological and experimental studies suggest that ethanol may enhance aggressiveness of breast cancer. We have previously demonstrated that short term exposure to ethanol (12–48 hours) increased migration/invasion in breast cancer cells overexpressing ErbB2, but not in breast cancer cells with low expression of ErbB2, such as MCF7, BT20 and T47D breast cancer cells. In this study, we showed that chronic ethanol exposure transformed breast cancer cells that were not responsive to short term ethanol treatment to a more aggressive phenotype. Chronic ethanol exposure (10 days - 2 months) at 100 (22 mM) or 200 mg/dl (44 mM) caused the scattering of MCF7, BT20 and T47D cell colonies in a 3-dimension culture system. Chronic ethanol exposure also increased colony formation in an anchorage-independent condition and stimulated cell invasion/migration. Chronic ethanol exposure increased cancer stem-like cell (CSC) population by more than 20 folds. Breast cancer cells exposed to ethanol in vitro displayed a much higher growth rate and metastasis in mice. Ethanol selectively activated p38γ MAPK and RhoC but not p38α/β in a concentration-dependent manner. SP-MCF7 cells, a derivative of MCF7 cells which compose mainly CSC expressed high levels of phosphorylated p38γ MAPK. Knocking-down p38γ MAPK blocked ethanol-induced RhoC activation, cell scattering, invasion/migration and ethanol-increased CSC population. Furthermore, knocking-down p38γ MAPK mitigated ethanol-induced tumor growth and metastasis in mice. These results suggest that chronic ethanol exposure can enhance the aggressiveness of breast cancer by activating p38γ MAPK/RhoC pathway.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Oncotarget, v. 7, no. 3, p. 3489-3505.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Funding Information

This research is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (AA017226 and AA015407).