PKM2 inhibition may reverse therapeutic resistance to transarterial chemoembolization in hepatocellular carcinoma

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2020 Jun 3;39(1):99. doi: 10.1186/s13046-020-01605-y.


Background: Therapeutic options for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are limited. Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) is an interventional procedure used to deliver chemotherapy and embolizing agents directly to the tumor and is the procedure of choice for patients with intermediate stage HCC. While effective, more than 40% of patients do not respond to therapy, highlighting the need to investigate possible mechanisms of resistance. We sought to evaluate mechanisms of TACE resistance and evaluate a potential therapeutic target to overcome this resistance.

Methods: Using a prognostic gene signature which predicts TACE response (TACE Navigator) in a cohort of HCC patients who received TACE, patients were classified as responders and non-responders. Transcriptomic and gene pathway analysis were used to identify potential drivers of TACE resistance. Knockdown of the gene encoding rate limiting enzyme PKM2 using shRNA in HCC cell lines, as well as pharmacologic inhibition of PKM2 with shikonin using an in vitro TACE model measured response to chemotherapy under hypoxia. Finally, we replicated the TACE model with shikonin using patient derived cell line organoids (PDC). Functional studies were performed in vitro using immunoblotting, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, glycolysis and hypoxia assays.

Results: In patient non-responders, we identified enrichment of the glycolysis pathway, specifically of the gene encoding the rate-limiting enzyme PKM2. We identified four HCC cell lines which recapitulated a TACE responder-like and non-responder-like phenotype. PKM2 knockdown in HCC cell lines demonstrated a less proliferative and aggressive phenotype as well as improved drug sensitivity to both doxorubicin and cisplatin. In vitro TACE model demonstrated that TACE non-responder-like cells overcame therapeutic resistance and rendered them susceptible to therapy through PKM2 knockdown. Lastly, we obtained similar results using a pharmacologic PKM2 inhibitor, shikonin in both cell lines, and PDC organoids.

Conclusion: Elevated PKM2 is associated with treatment resistance and abbreviated survival in patients receiving TACE. Elevated PKM2 in vitro is associated with increased utilization of the glycolysis pathway, resulting in oxygen independent cell metabolism. Through PKM2 knockdown as well as with pharmacologic inhibition with shikonin, non-responder cells can be reprogrammed to act as responders and could improve TACE efficacy in patients.

Keywords: Hepatocellular carcinoma; PKM2; Shikonin; TACE; Therapeutic reprogramming.

MeSH terms

  • Antibiotics, Antineoplastic / administration & dosage
  • Apoptosis
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / therapy*
  • Carrier Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Carrier Proteins / genetics
  • Carrier Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Chemoembolization, Therapeutic / methods*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Doxorubicin / administration & dosage*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Glycolysis
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Liver Neoplasms / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Membrane Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Prognosis
  • Survival Rate
  • Thyroid Hormones / genetics
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Antibiotics, Antineoplastic
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Thyroid Hormones
  • thyroid hormone-binding proteins
  • Doxorubicin