Sorafenib--a broad kinase inhibitor--is a standard therapy for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and has been shown to exert antifibrotic effects in liver cirrhosis, a precursor of HCC. However, the effects of sorafenib on tumor desmoplasia--and its consequences on treatment resistance--remain unknown. We demonstrate that sorafenib has differential effects on tumor fibrosis versus liver fibrosis in orthotopic models of HCC in mice. Sorafenib intensifies tumor hypoxia, which increases stromal-derived factor 1 alpha (SDF-1α) expression in cancer and stromal cells and, subsequently, myeloid differentiation antigen-positive (Gr-1(+)) myeloid cell infiltration. The SDF-1α/C-X-C receptor type 4 (CXCR4) pathway directly promotes hepatic stellate cell (HSC) differentiation and activation through the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway. This is consistent with the association between SDF-1α expression with fibrotic septa in cirrhotic liver tissues as well as with desmoplastic regions of human HCC samples. We demonstrate that after treatment with sorafenib, SDF-1α increased the survival of HSCs and their alpha-smooth muscle actin and collagen I expression, thus increasing tumor fibrosis. Finally, we show that Gr-1(+) myeloid cells mediate HSC differentiation and activation in a paracrine manner. CXCR4 inhibition, using AMD3100 in combination with sorafenib treatment, prevents the increase in tumor fibrosis--despite persistently elevated hypoxia--in part by reducing Gr-1(+) myeloid cell infiltration and inhibits HCC growth. Similarly, antibody blockade of Gr-1 reduces tumor fibrosis and inhibits HCC growth when combined with sorafenib treatment.
Conclusion: Blocking SDF-1α/CXCR4 or Gr-1(+) myeloid cell infiltration may reduce hypoxia-mediated HCC desmoplasia and increase the efficacy of sorafenib treatment.
© 2014 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.