Background: Tumor initiating stem-like cells (TISCs) are a subset of neoplastic cells that possess distinct survival mechanisms and self-renewal characteristics crucial for tumor maintenance and propagation. The induction of epithelial-mesenchymal-transition (EMT) by TGFβ has been recently linked to the acquisition of TISC characteristics in breast cancer. In HCC, a TISC and EMT phenotype correlates with a worse prognosis. In this work, our aim is to elucidate the underlying mechanism by which cells acquire tumor initiating characteristics after EMT.
Methods: Gene and protein expression assays and Nanog-promoter luciferase reporter were utilized in epithelial and mesenchymal phenotype liver cancer cell lines. EMT was analyzed with migration/invasion assays. TISC characteristics were analyzed with tumor-sphere self-renewal and chemotherapy resistance assays. In vivo tumor assay was performed to investigate the role of Snail1 in tumor initiation.
Conclusion: TGFβ induced EMT in epithelial cells through the up-regulation of Snail1 in Smad-dependent signaling. Mesenchymal liver cancer post-EMT demonstrates TISC characteristics such as tumor-sphere formation but are not resistant to cytotoxic therapy. The inhibition of Snail1 in mesenchymal cells results in decreased Nanog promoter luciferase activity and loss of self-renewal characteristics in vitro. These changes confirm the direct role of Snail1 in some TISC traits. In vivo, the down-regulation of Snail1 reduced tumor growth but was not sufficient to eliminate tumor initiation. In summary, TGFβ induces EMT and TISC characteristics through Snail1 and Nanog up-regulation. In mesenchymal cells post-EMT, Snail1 directly regulates Nanog expression, and loss of Snail1 regulates tumor growth without affecting tumor initiation.