N-acetyl cysteine induces quiescent-like pancreatic stellate cells from an active state and attenuates cancer-stroma interactions

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2021 Apr 15;40(1):133. doi: 10.1186/s13046-021-01939-1.


Background: Pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) occupy the majority of the pancreatic cancer microenvironment, contributing to aggressive behavior of pancreatic cancer cells (PCCs). Recently, anti-fibrotic agents have proven to be an effective strategy against cancer, but clinical trials have shown little efficacy, and the driving mechanism remains unknown. N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is often used for pulmonary cystic fibrosis. Pioglitazone, an agonist of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma, was habitually used for type II diabetes, but recently reported to inhibit metastasis of PCCs. However, few studies have focused on the effects of these two agents on cancer-stromal interactions.

Method: We evaluated the expression of α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) and the number of lipid droplets in PSCs cultured with or without NAC. We also evaluated changes in invasiveness, viability, and oxidative level in PSCs and PCCs after NAC treatment. Using an indirect co-culture system, we investigated changes in viability, invasiveness, and migration of PSCs and PCCs. Combined treatment effects of NAC and Pioglitazone were evaluated in PSCs and PCCs. In vivo, we co-transplanted KPC-derived organoids and PSCs to evaluate the effects of NAC and Pioglitazone's combination therapy on subcutaneous tumor formation and splenic xenografted mouse models.

Results: In vitro, NAC inhibited the viability, invasiveness, and migration of PSCs at a low concentration, but not those of PCCs. NAC treatment significantly reduced oxidative stress level and expression of α-SMA, collagen type I in PSCs, which apparently present a quiescent-like state with a high number of lipid droplets. Co-cultured PSCs and PCCs mutually promoted the viability, invasiveness, and migration of each other. However, these promotion effects were attenuated by NAC treatment. Pioglitazone maintained the NAC-induced quiescent-like state of PSCs, which were reactivated by PCC-supernatant, and enhanced chemosensitivity of PCCs. In vivo, NAC and Pioglitazone's combination suppressed tumor growth and liver metastasis with fewer stromal components and oxidative stress level.

Conclusion: NAC suppressed activated PSCs and attenuated cancer-stromal interactions. NAC induces quiescent-like PSCs that were maintained in this state by pioglitazone treatment.

Keywords: Cancer-stromal interactions; N-acetyl-cysteine; Pancreatic Cancer; Pancreatic stellate cells; Pioglitazone.

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Stellate Cells / metabolism


  • Acetylcysteine

Supplementary concepts

  • Pancreatic Carcinoma