Wnt/β-catenin signalling maintains self-renewal and tumourigenicity of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma stem-like cells by activating Oct4

Sang Hyuk Lee, Bon Seok Koo, Jin Man Kim, Songmei Huang, Young Soo Rho, Woo Jin Bae, Hyun Jung Kang, Young Sook Kim, Jung Hwa Moon, Young Chang Lim
Journal of Pathology 2014, 234 (1): 99-107
Accumulating evidence suggests that a distinct subpopulation of cancer stem cells (CSCs) is responsible for tumour initiation and progression in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Wnt/β-catenin signalling is essential for stem cell regulation and tumourigenesis, but its molecular mechanism in HNSCC CSCs remains unknown. We investigated whether Wnt/β-catenin signalling regulates self-renewal and tumourigenicity of HNSCC stem-like cells in vitro and in vivo. Cytoplasmic/nuclear β-catenin, a major effector of Wnt/β-catenin signalling, was expressed in a subpopulation of tumour cells in primary HNSCC tissue but in none of normal head and neck tissues. Overexpression of β-catenin increased proliferation of HNSCC cells and induced dedifferentiation of these cells to cells with stem-like features. Knockdown of β-catenin in HNSCC stem-like cells blocked their self-renewal capacity, stemness-associated gene expression, chemoresistance, and in vivo tumourigenicity. Furthermore, β-catenin directly regulates Oct4 transcription in HNSCC stem-like cells. In addition, the effect of shRNA-mediated repression of β-catenin on CSC traits in HNSCC stem-like cells was reversed by overexpression of Oct4. In patients with HNSCC, higher levels of both cytoplasmic/nuclear β-catenin and Oct4 correlated with the worst prognosis. These results suggest inhibition of Wnt/β-catenin signalling as a novel therapeutic strategy for targeting HNSCC stem-like cells.

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