The IL-6R and Bmi-1 axis controls self-renewal and chemoresistance of head and neck cancer stem cells

Cell Death Dis. 2021 Oct 23;12(11):988. doi: 10.1038/s41419-021-04268-5.


Despite major progress in elucidating the pathobiology of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), the high frequency of disease relapse correlates with unacceptably deficient patient survival. We previously showed that cancer stem-like cells (CSCs) drive tumorigenesis and progression of HNSCC. Although CSCs constitute only 2-5% of total tumor cells, CSCs contribute to tumor progression by virtue of their high tumorigenic potential and their resistance to chemo-, radio-, and immunotherapy. Not only are CSCs resistant to therapy, but cytotoxic agents actually enhance cancer stemness by activating transcription of pluripotency factors and by inducing expression of Bmi-1, a master regulator of stem cell self-renewal. We hypothesized therapeutic inhibition of interleukin-6 receptor (IL-6R) suppresses Bmi-1 to overcome intrinsic chemoresistance of CSCs. We observed that high Bmi-1 expression correlates with decreased (p = 0.04) recurrence-free survival time in HNSCC patients (n = 216). Blockade of IL-6R by lentiviral knockdown or pharmacologic inhibition with a humanized monoclonal antibody (Tocilizumab) is sufficient to inhibit Bmi-1 expression, secondary sphere formation, and to decrease the CSC fraction even in Cisplatin-resistant HNSCC cells. IL-6R inhibition with Tocilizumab abrogates Cisplatin-mediated increase in CSC fraction and induction of Bmi-1 in patient-derived xenograft (PDX) models of HNSCC. Notably, Tocilizumab inhibits Bmi-1 and suppresses growth of xenograft tumors generated with Cisplatin-resistant HNSCC cells. Altogether, these studies demonstrate that therapeutic blockade of IL-6R suppresses Bmi-1 function and inhibits cancer stemness. These results suggest therapeutic inhibition of IL-6R might be a viable strategy to overcome the CSC-mediated chemoresistance typically observed in HNSCC patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Polycomb Repressive Complex 1 / metabolism*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Interleukin-6 / metabolism*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Bmi1 protein, mouse
  • Il6ra protein, mouse
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Receptors, Interleukin-6
  • Polycomb Repressive Complex 1