Patient pIgR-enriched extracellular vesicles drive cancer stemness, tumorigenesis and metastasis in hepatocellular carcinoma

J Hepatol. 2022 Apr;76(4):883-895. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2021.12.005. Epub 2021 Dec 16.


Background & aims: Extracellular vesicles (EVs) play a pivotal role in connecting tumor cells with their local and distant microenvironments. Herein, we aimed to understand the role (on a molecular basis) patient-derived EVs play in modulating cancer stemness and tumorigenesis in the context of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Methods: EVs from patient sera were isolated, quantified and characterized. The EVs were vigorously tested, both in vitro and in vivo, through various functional assays. Proteomic analysis was performed to identify the functional components of EVs. The presence and level of polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR) in circulating EVs and tumor and non-tumorous tissues of patients with HCC were determined by ELISA, immunoblotting, immunohistochemistry and quantitative PCR. The functional role and underlying mechanism of EVs with enhanced pIgR expression were elucidated. Blockade of EV-pIgR with neutralizing antibody was performed in nude mice implanted with patient-derived tumor xenografts (PDTXs).

Results: Circulating EVs from patients with late-stage HCC (L-HCC) had significantly elevated pIgR expression compared to the EVs released by control individuals. The augmenting effect of L-HCC-EVs on cancer stemness and tumorigenesis was hindered by an anti-pIgR antibody. EVs enriched with pIgR consistently promoted cancer stemness and cancerous phenotypes in recipient cells. Mechanistically, EV-pIgR-induced cancer aggressiveness was abrogated by Akt and β-catenin inhibitors, confirming that the role of EV-pIgR depends on the activation of the PDK1/Akt/GSK3β/β-catenin signaling axis. Furthermore, an anti-pIgR neutralizing antibody attenuated tumor growth in mice implanted with PDTXs.

Conclusions: This study illustrates a previously unknown role of EV-pIgR in regulating cancer stemness and aggressiveness: EV-pIgR activates PDK1/Akt/GSK3β/β-catenin signaling cascades. The blockade of the intercellular communication mediated by EV-pIgR in the tumor microenvironment may provide a new therapeutic strategy for patients with cancer.

Lay summary: The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 million patients will die from liver cancer, mostly hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), in 2030. Understanding the underlying mechanism by which HCC acquires aggressive attributes is crucial to improving the diagnosis and treatment of patients. Herein, we demonstrated that nanometer-sized extracellular vesicles released by tumors promote cancer stemness and tumorigenesis. Within these oncogenic vesicles, we identified a key component that functions as a potent modulator of cancer aggressiveness. By inhibiting this functional component of EVs using a neutralizing antibody, tumor growth was profoundly attenuated in mice. This hints at a potentially effective therapeutic alternative for patients with cancer.

Keywords: Intercellular communication; Liver cancer; Neutralizing antibody; Proteomics; Tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • Carcinogenesis / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Extracellular Vesicles* / metabolism
  • Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3 beta
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Proteomics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism
  • Receptors, Polymeric Immunoglobulin* / metabolism
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • beta Catenin / genetics


  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • Receptors, Polymeric Immunoglobulin
  • beta Catenin
  • Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3 beta
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt