SMAD pathways govern epithelial proliferation, and transforming growth factor β (TGF-β and BMP signaling through SMAD members has distinct effects on mammary development and homeostasis. Here, we show that LEFTY1, a secreted inhibitor of NODAL/SMAD2 signaling, is produced by mammary progenitor cells and, concomitantly, suppresses SMAD2 and SMAD5 signaling to promote long-term proliferation of normal and malignant mammary epithelial cells. In contrast, BMP7, a NODAL antagonist with context-dependent functions, is produced by basal cells and restrains progenitor cell proliferation. In normal mouse epithelium, LEFTY1 expression in a subset of luminal cells and rare basal cells opposes BMP7 to promote ductal branching. LEFTY1 binds BMPR2 to suppress BMP7-induced activation of SMAD5, and this LEFTY1-BMPR2 interaction is specific to tumor-initiating cells in triple-negative breast cancer xenografts that rely on LEFTY1 for growth. These results suggest that LEFTY1 is an endogenous dual-SMAD inhibitor and that suppressing its function may represent a therapeutic vulnerability in breast cancer.
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