Esta Sterneck, Ph.D.

Esta  Sterneck, Ph.D.
Senior Investigator
Head, Molecular Mechanisms in Development Section

Dr. Sterneck's research group investigates cell signaling pathways that regulate mammary gland development and tumorigenesis. Work with transgenic mouse models, human cancer cell lines, and patient-derived xenograft models addresses the mechanisms by which inflammation, stress, and hypoxia shape the progression and metastasis of breast cancer. Studies of the C/EBP family of transcription factors elucidated intersections of signaling pathways that contribute to the malignancy of cancer cells. Current investigations include analyses of the immune system response to tumors, especially by the myleoid lineage. The ultimate goal is to uncover actionable vulnerabilities of established breast cancer metastases.

Areas of Expertise

1) breast cancer, 2) mouse models, 3) gene expression, 4) C/EBP, 5) inflammation,
6) hypoxia

Contact Info

Esta Sterneck, Ph.D.
Center for Cancer Research
National Cancer Institute
Building 560, Room 22-90C
Frederick, MD 21702-1201
Ph: 301-846-1471

The C/EBPδ Transcription Factor:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Mammary Tumor Biology

My laboratory conducts basic research to better understand cell signaling pathways that regulate mammary gland development and tumorigenesis. In particular, we investigate the physiological functions of the transcription factor CCAAT/enhancer binding protein delta (C/EBPδ), encoded by the CEBPD gene. We use genetically engineered mice and human breast epithelial cell lines to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of CEBPδ's functions in development and tumorigenesis. In addition, we analyze patient samples to guide our approaches and determine the clinical relevance of our observations. Our long-term goal is to understand the normal cell functions and perturbations that affect breast tumor biology.

Gene expression analyses in human tissues show that CEBPD expression is downregulated in breast cancer and is part of a 70-gene expression signature that predicts longer patient survival. These observations and studies in cell lines had suggested that C/EBPδ functions as a tumor suppressor. Our contributions to elucidate the tumor suppressor-like functions of C/EBPδ in mammary epithelial cells include the findings that C/EBPδ augments cyclin D1 protein degradation by the APC/Ccdc27 pathway (Pawar et al., 2010), inhibits the Src tyrosine kinase-induced transformation of breast epithelial cell lines (Sarkar et al., 2012), and augments DNA repair (Huang et al., 2004; Wang et al., 2010). We also obtained the first in vivo evidence of C/EBPδ's tumor-suppressing role, by crossing Cebpd null mice with transgenic MMTV-Neu mice, a model for stochastic mammary tumorigenesis (Balamurugan et al., 2010). Unexpectedly, this approach revealed an additional role of C/EBPδ in promoting metastatic tumor progression. We subsequently discovered that C/EBPδ augments hypoxic and inflammatory signaling events, which are both associated with promoting metastasis, by suppressing expression of FBXW7α (Balamurugan et al., 2010, 2013). FBXW7α is a substrate-binding subunit of the SCF polyubiquitination complex and a bona fide tumor suppressor for several epithelial cancers because it targets a number of oncoproteins for degradation. Our finding that C/EBPδ represses FBXW7α in tumor cells and macrophages suggested alternative roles for C/EBPδ in tumor development, both within mammary epithelial cells and in the tumor microenvironment (Balamurugan et al., 2010, 2013). In addition, we discovered two degradation pathways that downregulate C/EBPδ protein levels: the pro-oncogenic SIAH2 ubiquitin ligase pathway and a pathway requiring the tumor suppressor SCF-FBXW7 ubiquitin ligase (Sarkar et al., 2012; Balamurugan et al., 2013). These findings further corroborate the dual nature of C/EBPδ's functions (see also Balamurugan and Sterneck, 2013).

Our current research is designed to determine the diverse functions of C/EBPδ in tumorigenesis, to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of C/EBPδ signaling and of the switch between its different functions. Specifically, we are identifying target genes of C/EBPδ that mediate its tumor suppressor or tumor promoter function within mammary epithelial cells. Through ChIP-Seq and mRNA-Seq approaches we have identified several new target genes whose expression correlates with better outcome for breast cancer patients, and we are investigating their functions in breast tumor cells. To study tumor promotion by C/EBPδ, we focus on hypoxia and inflammation as mediators of epithelial-mesenchymal transition and cancer cell stemness. We are also investigating the contributions of C/EBPδ functions in the tumor microenvironment on mammary tumor development. Towards this goal, we have recently developed mice with a conditional knockout allele of C/EBPδ.

Collectively, these approaches will provide deeper insight into the molecular mechanisms that modulate mammary epithelial cell biology and may allow us to better understand the complexity and diversity of cellular processes in normal development and breast cancer.

Current collaborators.  Drs. Goran Landberg (Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, Manchester U.K.), Carlos Caldas (University of Cambridge, UK), David Brown (St. Vincent's Centre for Applied Medical Research, Australia), Fiona Yull (Vanderbilt University), Rosandra Kaplan (NCI), Stephen Hughes (NCI), Sendurai Mani (MD Anderson Cancer Center) and Wendy Woodward (MD Anderson Cancer Center).

NIH Scientific Focus Areas:
Cancer Biology, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Genetics and Genomics, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
View Dr. Sterneck's PubMed Summary.

Selected Recent Publications

  1. Balamurugan K, Mendoza-Villanueva D, Sharan S, Summers GH, Dobrolecki LE, Lewis MT, Sterneck E.
    Oncogene. 38(20): 3765-80, 2019. [ Journal Article ]
  2. Mendoza-Villanueva D, Balamurugan K, Ali HR, Kim SR, Sharan S, Johnson RC, Merchant AS, Caldas C, Landberg G, Sterneck E.
    Oncogene. 35(48): 6166-76, 2016. [ Journal Article ]
  3. Balamurugan K, Sharan S, Klarmann KD, Zhang Y, Coppola V, Summers GH, Roger T, Morrison DK, Keller JR, Sterneck E.
    Nat Commun. 4: 1662, 2013. [ Journal Article ]
  4. Balamurugan K, Sterneck E.
    Int J Biol Sci. 9: 917-33, 2013. [ Journal Article ]
  5. Sarkar TR, Sharan S, Wang J, Pawar SA, Cantwell C, Johnson PF, Morrison DK, Wang J, Sterneck E.
    Mol. Cell Biol. 32: 320-32, 2012. [ Journal Article ]

Dr. Esta Sterneck received her Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg following training at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Center for Molecular Biology Heidelberg (ZMBH) in Germany. Her thesis work investigated oncogene cooperation in leukemia cells and revealed their coordinate induction of an essential autocrine growth factor. During her postdoctoral training at the Advanced BioScience Laboratories-Basic Research Program in Frederick, MD, Dr. Sterneck began to study the functions of C/EBP transcription factors, including their roles in normal mammary gland development, through genetically engineered mice. Dr. Sterneck began her independent research with an NCI-Scholar grant before being recruited as a Principal Investigator to the NCI in 2003. Her current research investigates the functions of the C/EBPδ transcription factor as tumor suppressor as well as tumor promoter in breast epithelial cells and cells of the tumor microenvironment.

In 2013, Dr. Sterneck received the NIH Merit Award and the NCI Outstanding Mentor Award.

Name Position
Balamurugan Kuppusamy, Ph.D. Staff Scientist
Lois McKennett B.Sc. Animal Technician (Contr.)
Dipak Poria Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow (Visiting)
Shikha Sharan M.S. Research Biologist
Ariana Vitale B.Sc. Postbaccalaureate Fellow (CRTA)