Cancer-associated fibroblasts promote prostate tumor growth and progression through upregulation of cholesterol and steroid biosynthesis

Cell Commun Signal. 2020 Jan 24;18(1):11. doi: 10.1186/s12964-019-0505-5.


Background: Androgen receptor targeted therapies have emerged as an effective tool to manage advanced prostate cancer (PCa). Nevertheless, frequent occurrence of therapy resistance represents a major challenge in the clinical management of patients, also because the molecular mechanisms behind therapy resistance are not yet fully understood. In the present study, we therefore aimed to identify novel targets to intervene with therapy resistance using gene expression analysis of PCa co-culture spheroids where PCa cells are grown in the presence of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and which have been previously shown to be a reliable model for antiandrogen resistance.

Methods: Gene expression changes of co-culture spheroids (LNCaP and DuCaP seeded together with CAFs) were identified by Illumina microarray profiling. Real-time PCR, Western blotting, immunohistochemistry and cell viability assays in 2D and 3D culture were performed to validate the expression of selected targets in vitro and in vivo. Cytokine profiling was conducted to analyze CAF-conditioned medium.

Results: Gene expression analysis of co-culture spheroids revealed that CAFs induced a significant upregulation of cholesterol and steroid biosynthesis pathways in PCa cells. Cytokine profiling revealed high amounts of pro-inflammatory, pro-migratory and pro-angiogenic factors in the CAF supernatant. In particular, two genes, 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-Coenzyme A synthase 2 (HMGCS2) and aldo-keto reductase family 1 member C3 (AKR1C3), were significantly upregulated in PCa cells upon co-culture with CAFs. Both enzymes were also significantly increased in human PCa compared to benign tissue with AKR1C3 expression even being associated with Gleason score and metastatic status. Inhibiting HMGCS2 and AKR1C3 resulted in significant growth retardation of co-culture spheroids as well as of various castration and enzalutamide resistant cell lines in 2D and 3D culture, underscoring their putative role in PCa. Importantly, dual targeting of cholesterol and steroid biosynthesis with simvastatin, a commonly prescribed cholesterol synthesis inhibitor, and an inhibitor against AKR1C3 had the strongest growth inhibitory effect.

Conclusions: From our results we conclude that CAFs induce an upregulation of cholesterol and steroid biosynthesis in PCa cells, driving them into AR targeted therapy resistance. Blocking both pathways with simvastatin and an AKR1C3 inhibitor may therefore be a promising approach to overcome resistances to AR targeted therapies in PCa. Video abstract.

Keywords: AKR1C3; Antiandrogens; Castration resistance; Cholesterol; HMGCS2; Prostate cancer; Simvastatin; Steroid metabolism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Benzamides / pharmacology
  • Biosynthetic Pathways / genetics
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts / metabolism*
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts / pathology*
  • Cell Cycle / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / genetics
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Cell Survival / genetics
  • Cholesterol / biosynthesis*
  • Culture Media, Conditioned / pharmacology
  • Disease Progression*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / drug effects
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Annotation
  • Nitriles / pharmacology
  • Phenotype
  • Phenylthiohydantoin / pharmacology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms, Castration-Resistant / genetics
  • Prostatic Neoplasms, Castration-Resistant / pathology
  • Receptors, Androgen / metabolism
  • Simvastatin / pharmacology
  • Spheroids, Cellular / metabolism
  • Spheroids, Cellular / pathology
  • Up-Regulation*


  • AR protein, human
  • Benzamides
  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • Nitriles
  • Receptors, Androgen
  • Phenylthiohydantoin
  • enzalutamide
  • Cholesterol
  • Simvastatin