Accumulating evidence suggests that a distinct subpopulation of cancer stem cells (CSCs) is responsible for tumour initiation and progression in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Wnt/β-catenin signalling is essential for stem cell regulation and tumourigenesis, but its molecular mechanism in HNSCC CSCs remains unknown. We investigated whether Wnt/β-catenin signalling regulates self-renewal and tumourigenicity of HNSCC stem-like cells in vitro and in vivo. Cytoplasmic/nuclear β-catenin, a major effector of Wnt/β-catenin signalling, was expressed in a subpopulation of tumour cells in primary HNSCC tissue but in none of normal head and neck tissues. Overexpression of β-catenin increased proliferation of HNSCC cells and induced dedifferentiation of these cells to cells with stem-like features. Knockdown of β-catenin in HNSCC stem-like cells blocked their self-renewal capacity, stemness-associated gene expression, chemoresistance, and in vivo tumourigenicity. Furthermore, β-catenin directly regulates Oct4 transcription in HNSCC stem-like cells. In addition, the effect of shRNA-mediated repression of β-catenin on CSC traits in HNSCC stem-like cells was reversed by overexpression of Oct4. In patients with HNSCC, higher levels of both cytoplasmic/nuclear β-catenin and Oct4 correlated with the worst prognosis. These results suggest inhibition of Wnt/β-catenin signalling as a novel therapeutic strategy for targeting HNSCC stem-like cells.
Keywords: Oct4; Wnt/β-catenin signalling; cancer stem cells; head and neck cancer; target therapy.
Copyright © 2014 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.