Breast cancers are known to be driven by the transcription factor estrogen receptor and its ligand estrogen. While the receptor's cis-binding elements are known to vary between tumors, heterogeneity of hormone signaling at a single-cell level is unknown. In this study, we systematically tracked estrogen response across time at a single-cell level in multiple cell line and organoid models. To accurately model these changes, we developed a computational tool (TITAN) that quantifies signaling gradients in single-cell datasets. Using this approach, we found that gene expression response to estrogen is non-uniform, with distinct cell groups expressing divergent transcriptional networks. Pathway analysis suggested the two most distinct signatures are driven separately by ER and FOXM1. We observed that FOXM1 was indeed activated by phosphorylation upon estrogen stimulation and silencing of FOXM1 attenuated the relevant gene signature. Analysis of scRNA-seq data from patient samples confirmed the existence of these divergent cell groups, with the FOXM1 signature predominantly found in ER negative cells. Further, multi-omic single-cell experiments indicated that the different cell groups have distinct chromatin accessibility states. Our results provide a comprehensive insight into ER biology at the single-cell level and potential therapeutic strategies to mitigate resistance to therapy.
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