Recent evidence suggests that the metastatic spread of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) requires the function of cancer stem cells endowed with multipotency, self-renewal, and high tumorigenic potential. We demonstrated that cancer stem cells reside in perivascular niches and are characterized by high aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) activity and high CD44 expression (ALDHhighCD44high) in HNSCC. Here, we hypothesize that endothelial cell-secreted interleukin-6 (IL-6) contributes to tumor progression by enhancing the migratory phenotype and survival of cancer stem cells. Analysis of tissue microarrays generated from the invasive fronts of 77 HNSCC patients followed-up for up to 11 years revealed that high expression of IL-6 receptor (IL-6R) (p=0.0217) or co-receptor gp130 (p=0.0422) correlates with low HNSCC patient survival. We observed that endothelial cell-secreted factors induce epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) and enhance invasive capacity of HNSCC cancer stem cells. Conditioned medium from CRISPR/Cas9-mediated IL-6 knockout primary human endothelial cells is less chemotactic for cancer stem cells in a microfluidics-based system than medium from control endothelial cells (p<0.05). Blockade of the IL-6 pathway with a humanized anti-IL-6R antibody (tocilizumab) inhibited endothelial cell-induced motility in vitro and decreased the fraction of cancer stem cells in vivo. Notably, xenograft HNSCC tumors vascularized with IL-6-knockout endothelial cells exhibited slower tumor growth and smaller cancer stem cell fraction. These findings demonstrate that endothelial cell-secreted IL-6 enhances the motility and survival of highly tumorigenic cancer stem cells, suggesting that endothelial cells can create a chemotactic gradient that enables the movement of carcinoma cells towards blood vessels.
Keywords: cancer stem cells; epithelial-mesenchymal transition; head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; metastasis; migration.