Single-cell analysis reveals that cancer-associated fibroblasts stimulate oral squamous cell carcinoma invasion via the TGF-β/Smad pathway

Acta Biochim Biophys Sin (Shanghai). 2022 Jan 25. doi: 10.3724/abbs.2022132. Online ahead of print.


Although substantial progress has been made in cancer biology and treatment, the prognosis of oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is still not satisfactory because of local tumor invasion and frequent lymph node metastasis. The tumor microenvironment (TME) is a potential target in which cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) are of great significance due to their interactions with cancer cells. However, the exact mechanism is still unclear. Therefore, we focus on the crosstalk between cancer cells and CAFs and discover that CAFs are the main source of TGF-β1. Transwell assays and western blot analysis further prove that CAFs activate the TGF-β1/Smad pathway to promote OSCC invasion. Through survival analysis, we confirm that CAF overexpression is correlated with poor overall survival in OSCC. To further elucidate the origin and role of CAFs in OSCC, we analyze single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) data from 14 OSCC tumor samples and identify four distinct cell types, including CAFs, in the TME, indicating high intratumoral heterogeneity. Then, two subtypes of CAFs, namely, myofibroblasts (mCAFs) and inflammatory CAFs (iCAFs), are further distinguished. Based on the differentially upregulated genes of mCAFs and iCAFs, GO enrichment analysis reveals their different roles in OSCC progression. Furthermore, the gene expression pattern is dynamically altered across pseudotime, potentially taking part in the transformation from epithelial to mCAFs or iCAFs through the epithelial to mesenchymal transition.

Keywords: TGF-β; cancer-associated fibroblast; myofibroblast; oral squamous cell carcinoma; single cell.