Background: Neurotrophin receptors were initially identified in neural cells. They were recently detected in some cancers in association with invasiveness, but the function of these tyrosine kinase receptors was not previously investigated in colorectal cancer (CRC) cells.
Methods and findings: We report herein that human CRC cell lines synthesize the neural growth factor Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) under stress conditions (serum starvation). In parallel, CRC cells expressed high- (TrkB) and low-affinity (p75(NTR)) receptors at the plasma membrane, whereas TrkA and TrkC, two other high affinity receptors for NGF and NT-3, respectively, were undetectable. We demonstrate that BDNF induced cell proliferation and had an anti-apoptotic effect mediated through TrkB, as assessed by K252a, a Trk pharmacologic inhibitor. It suppressed both cell proliferation and survival of CRC cells that do not express TrkA nor TrkC. In parallel to the increase of BDNF secretion, sortilin, a protein acting as a neurotrophin transporter as well as a co-receptor for p75(NTR), was increased in the cytoplasm of primary and metastatic CRC cells, which suggests that sortilin could regulate neurotrophin transport in these cells. However, pro-BDNF, also detected in CRC cells, was co-expressed with p75(NTR) at the cell membrane and co-localized with sortilin. In contrast to BDNF, exogenous pro-BDNF induced CRC apoptosis, which suggests that a counterbalance mechanism is involved in the control of CRC cell survival, through sortilin as the co-receptor for p75(NTR), the high affinity receptor for pro-neurotrophins. Likewise, we show that BDNF and TrkB transcripts (and not p75(NTR)) are overexpressed in the patients' tumors by comparison with their adjacent normal tissues, notably in advanced stages of CRC.
Conclusion: Taken together, these results highlight that BDNF and TrkB are essential for CRC cell growth and survival in vitro and in tumors. This autocrine loop could be of major importance to define new targeted therapies.