Background: Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) display cellular heterogeneity and contain cancer stem cells (CSCs). Sex-determining region Y [SRY]-box (SOX)2 is an important regulator of embryonic stem cell fate and is aberrantly expressed in several types of human tumours. Nonetheless, the role of SOX2 in HNSCC remains unclear.
Methods: We created cells ectopically expressing SOX2 from previously established HNSCC cells and examined the cell proliferation, self-renewal capacity, and chemoresistance of these cells compared with control cells. In addition, we knocked down SOX2 in primary spheres obtained from HNSCC tumour tissue and assessed the attenuation of stemness-associated traits in these cells in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, we examined the clinical relevance of SOX2 expression in HNSCC patients.
Results: SOX2 is aberrantly expressed in primary tissue of HNSCC patients but not in healthy tissue. SOX2 expression correlated with tumour recurrence and poor prognosis of HNSCC patients. Ectopic expression of SOX2 induced cell proliferation via cyclin B1 expression and stemness-associated features, such as self-renewal and chemoresistance. In addition, a knockdown of SOX2 in HNSCC CSCs attenuated their self-renewal capacity, chemoresistance (through ABCG2 suppression), invasion capacity (via snail downregulation), and in vivo tumorigenicity.
Conclusions: These results suggest that SOX2 may have important roles in the 'stemness' and progression of HNSCC. Targeting SOX2-positive tumour cells (CSCs) could be a new therapeutic strategy in HNSCCs.