Expression of the p55 gene protects cells against malignant transformation. Whereas control of p53 degradation has been a subject of intense scrutiny, little is known about the factors that regulate p53 synthesis. Here we show that p53 messenger RNA levels are low in a large proportion of breast tumours. Seeking potential regulators of p53 transcription, we found consensus HOX binding sites in the p53 promoter. Transient transfection of Hox/HOXA5 activated the p53 promoter. Expression of HOXA5 in epithelial cancer cells expressing wild-type p53, but not in isogenic variants lacking the p53 gene, led to apoptotic cell death. Moreover, breast cancer cell lines and patient tumours display a coordinate loss of p53 and HOXA5 mRNA and protein expression. The HOXA5 promoter region was methylated in 16 out of 20 p53-negative breast tumour specimens. We conclude that loss of expression of p53 in human breast cancer may be primarily due to lack of expression of HOXA5.
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