Cancer-associated fibroblasts promote bone invasion in oral squamous cell carcinoma

Br J Cancer. 2017 Sep 5;117(6):867-875. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2017.239. Epub 2017 Jul 25.


Background: The molecular mechanisms involved in the invasion of bone by oral squamous cell carcinomas (OSCC) are poorly understood, and little is known about the role of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAF), the presence of which confers a poor prognosis.

Methods: Clinicopathological data from 277 OSCC cases involving bone resections were reviewed, and 32 cases thoroughly analysed histologically. Immunohistochemistry was used to examine αSMA, RANKL and OPG. Western blotting and qPCR were used to assess myofibroblast (CAF-like) differentiation, RANKL and OPG expression in vitro, and RANKL secretion was analysed by ELISA. Osteoclastogenesis was examined using TRAP staining, multinucleation and pit forming assays.

Results: Fibrous stroma intervened between tumour and bone in the majority of cases, with no direct contact between cancer cells and bone. RANKL and OPG, two proteins key to regulating bone resorption, were expressed in tumour cells as well as fibrous stroma adjacent to bone and αSMA-positive myofibroblastic CAF were consistently seen infiltrating into bone ahead of tumour cells. Human primary osteoblasts cultured with conditioned media from human OSCC-derived cells and human primary CAF showed a significant increase in RANKL and a decline in OPG mRNA expression. RANKL secretion was significantly increased in primary oral fibroblasts induced to differentiate into a CAF-like phenotype by transforming growth factor-β1 (TGF-β1) treatment and in primary CAF. Indirect co-culture of murine macrophages with conditioned media from CAF (experimentally derived and isolated from OSCCs) resulted in a marked increase in osteoclastogenesis (in excess of that provoked by cancer cells) determined by tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase activity, multinucleation and resorption pit formation.

Conclusions: This study is the first to describe a functional role for CAFs in bone invasion and turnover, identifying a novel potential therapeutic target and diagnostic indicator in this difficult to treat bone invasive malignancy.

MeSH terms

  • Actins / analysis
  • Bone Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Bone Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry
  • Bone and Bones / drug effects
  • Bone and Bones / pathology
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts / chemistry
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts / physiology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / chemistry
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology*
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Humans
  • Mitochondrial Proteins / analysis
  • Mouth Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Mouth Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Proteins / analysis*
  • Osteogenesis
  • Osteoprotegerin / analysis
  • RANK Ligand
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Receptor Activator of Nuclear Factor-kappa B / analysis
  • Ribosomal Proteins / analysis
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1 / pharmacology


  • Actins
  • MRPL49 protein, human
  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Osteoprotegerin
  • RANK Ligand
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptor Activator of Nuclear Factor-kappa B
  • Ribosomal Proteins
  • TNFRSF11B protein, human
  • TNFSF11 protein, human
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1