Progression of epithelial cancers predominantly proceeds by collective invasion of cell groups with coordinated cell–cell junctions and multicellular cytoskeletal activity. Collectively invading breast cancer cells express the gap junction protein connexin-43 (Cx43), yet whether Cx43 regulates collective invasion remains unclear. We here show that Cx43 mediates gap-junctional coupling between collectively invading breast cancer cells and, via hemichannels, adenosine nucleotide/nucleoside release into the extracellular space. Using molecular interference and rescue strategies, we identify that Cx43 hemichannel function, but not intercellular communication, induces leader cell activity and collective migration through the engagement of the adenosine receptor 1 (ADORA1) and AKT signaling. Accordingly, pharmacological inhibition of ADORA1 or AKT signaling caused leader cell collapse and halted collective invasion. ADORA1 inhibition further reduced local invasion of orthotopic mammary tumors in vivo, and joint up-regulation of Cx43 and ADORA1 in breast cancer patients correlated with decreased relapse-free survival. This identifies autocrine purinergic signaling, through Cx43 hemichannels, as a critical pathway in leader cell function and collective invasion.

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