Hepatocellular carcinomas (HCC) contain a subpopulation of cancer stem cells (CSCs), which exhibit stem cell-like features and are responsible for tumor relapse, metastasis, and chemoresistance. The development of effective treatments for HCC will depend on a molecular-level understanding of the specific pathways driving CSC emergence and stemness. MacroH2A1 is a variant of the histone H2A and an epigenetic regulator of stem-cell function, where it promotes differentiation and, conversely, acts as a barrier to somatic-cell reprogramming. Here, we focused on the role played by the histone variant macroH2A1 as a potential epigenetic factor promoting CSC differentiation. In human HCC sections we uncovered a significant correlation between low frequencies of macroH2A1 staining and advanced, aggressive HCC subtypes with poorly differentiated tumor phenotypes. Using HCC cell lines, we found that short hairpin RNA-mediated macroH2A1 knockdown induces acquisition of CSC-like features, including the growth of significantly larger and less differentiated tumors when injected into nude mice. MacroH2A1-depleted HCC cells also exhibited reduced proliferation, resistance to chemotherapeutic agents, and stem-like metabolic changes consistent with enhanced hypoxic responses and increased glycolysis. The loss of macroH2A1 increased expression of a panel of stemness-associated genes and drove hyperactivation of the nuclear factor kappa B p65 pathway. Blocking phosphorylation of nuclear factor kappa B p65 on Ser536 inhibited the emergence of CSC-like features in HCC cells knocked down for macroH2A1. Conclusion: The absence of histone variant macroH2A1 confers a CSC-like phenotype to HCC cells in vitro and in vivo that depends on Ser536 phosphorylation of nuclear factor kappa B p65; this pathway may hold valuable targets for the development of CSC-focused treatments for HCC. (Hepatology 2018;67:636-650).
© 2017 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.