Upregulation of HIF-2α induced by sorafenib contributes to the resistance by activating the TGF-α/EGFR pathway in hepatocellular carcinoma cells

Dali Zhao, Bo Zhai, Changjun He, Gang Tan, Xian Jiang, Shangha Pan, Xuesong Dong, Zheng Wei, Lixin Ma, Haiquan Qiao, Hongchi Jiang, Xueying Sun
Cellular Signalling 2014, 26 (5): 1030-9
Sorafenib, the first-line systemic drug for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), has demonstrated limited benefits with very low response rates. Thus it is essential to investigate the underlying mechanisms for the resistance to sorafenib and seek potential strategy to enhance its efficacy. Hypoxic cells inside solid tumors are extremely resistant to therapies as their survival ability is increased due to the cellular adaptive response to hypoxia, which is controlled by hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF)-1 and HIF-2. Sorafenib inhibits HIF-1α synthesis, making the hypoxic response switch from HIF-1α- to HIF-2α-dependent pathways and providing a mechanism for more aggressive growth of tumors. The present study has demonstrated that upregulation of HIF-2α induced by sorafenib contributes to the resistance of hypoxic HCC cells by activating the transforming growth factor (TGF)-α/epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) pathway. Blocking the TGF-α/EGFR pathway by gefitinib, a specific EGFR inhibitor, reduced the activation of STAT (signal transducer and activator of transcription) 3, AKT and ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase), and synergized with sorafenib to inhibit proliferation and induce apoptosis of hypoxic HCC cells. Transfection of HIF-2α siRNA into HCC cells downregulated the expression of VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), cyclin D1, HIF-2α and TGF-α, and inhibited the activation of EGFR. HIF-2α siRNA inhibited the proliferation and promoted the apoptosis of HCC cells in vitro, and synergized with sorafenib to suppress the growth of HCC tumors in vivo. The results indicate that targeting HIF-2α-mediated activation of the TGF-α/EGFR pathway warrants further investigation as a potential strategy to enhance the efficacy of sorafenib for treating HCC.

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