We have studied the posttranslational modifications of the 52-kD protein, an estrogen-regulated autocrine mitogen secreted by several human breast cancer cells in culture (Westley, B., and H. Rochefort, 1980, Cell, 20:353-362). The secreted 52-kD protein was found to be phosphorylated mostly (94%) on high-mannose N-linked oligosaccharide chains, and mannose-6-phosphate signals were identified. The phosphate signal was totally removed by alkaline phosphatase hydrolysis. The secreted 52-kD protein was partly taken up by MCF7 cells via mannose-6-phosphate receptors and processed into 48- and 34-kD protein moieties as with lysosomal hydrolases. By electron microscopy, immunoperoxidase staining revealed most of the reactive proteins in lysosomes. After complete purification by immunoaffinity chromatography, we identified both the secreted 52-kD protein and its processed cellular forms as aspartic and acidic proteinases specifically inhibited by pepstatin. The 52-kD protease is secreted in breast cancer cells under its inactive proenzyme form, which can be autoactivated at acidic pH with a slight decrease of molecular mass. The enzyme of breast cancer cells, when compared with cathepsin D(s) of normal tissue, was found to be similar in molecular weight, enzymatic activities (inhibitors, substrates, specific activities), and immunoreactivity. However, the 52-kD protein and its cellular processed forms of breast cancer cells were totally sensitive to endo-beta-N-acetylglucosaminidase H (Endo H), whereas several cellular cathepsin D(s) of normal tissue were partially Endo H-resistant. This difference, in addition to others concerning tissue distribution, mitogenic activity and hormonal regulation, strongly suggests that the 52-kD cathepsin D-like enzyme of breast cancer cells is different from previously described cathepsin D(s). The 52-kD estrogen-induced lysosomal proteinase may have important functions in facilitating the mammary cancer cells to proliferate, migrate, and metastasize.

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