Previous work from our laboratory has demonstrated overexpression of chemokines in head and neck cancer and the utility of targeting these proteins for tumor therapy in a preclinical model. However, the mechanisms involved are unexplored. Through gene expression analysis, we found that expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF-C) was elevated in HN12 cells expressing high levels of CXCL5. In the present study, we have investigated the contribution of VEGF-C to tumor cell growth and motility. RNAi-mediated knockdown of VEGF-C expression in HN12 cells, which express high levels of CXCL5, resulted in a decrease in proliferation. Conversely, forced expression of VEGF-C in HN4 tumor cells with low endogenous CXCL5 levels increased cell growth. Suppression of VEGF-C inhibited migration of HN12 cells. Similarly, HN4 cells showed reduced migration towards conditioned media collected from HN12 cells with VEGF-C knockdown compared to controls, while HN4/VEGF-C conditioned media stimulated cell migration. Moreover, tumor growth in vivo was markedly reduced when VEGF-C expression was blocked by shRNA. Finally, determination of VEGF-C expression in squamous carcinoma cell lines revealed universal overexpression compared to normal keratinocytes. These findings support a role for VEGF-C in head and neck squamous cell carcinogenesis.
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