1. Surgery Branch, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA;
2. Laboratory of Molecular Oncology, Key Laboratory of Carcinogenesis and Translational Research (Ministry of Education), Peking University Cancer Hospital and Institute, Beijing 100142, China;
3. Collaborative Protein Technology Resource, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA;
4. Laboratory for Experimental Carcinogenesis, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA;
5. Department of Surgery, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA;
6. Department of Surgery, Saint Peter's Healthcare System, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, USA.
*Authors contributed equally.
Background & Aims: Recently, we reported that liver Label Retaining Cancer Cells (LRCC) can initiate tumors with only 10 cells and are relatively resistant to the targeted drug Sorafenib, a standard of practice in advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). LRCC are the only cancer stem cells (CSC) isolated alive according to a stem cell fundamental function, asymmetric cell division. Metformin has been reported to preferentially target many other types of CSC of different organs, including liver. It's important to know if LRCC, a novel class of CSC, are relatively resistant to metformin, unlike other types of CSC. As metformin inhibits the Sorafenib-Target-Protein (STP) PI3K, and LRCC are newly described CSC, we undertook this study to test the effects of Metformin on Sorafenib-treated HCC and HCC-derived-LRCC.
Methods: We tested various STP levels and phosphorylation status, associated genes' expression, proliferation, viability, toxicity, and apoptosis profiles, before and after treatment with Sorafenib with/without Metformin.
Results: Metformin enhances the effects of Sorafenib on HCC, and significantly decreased viability/proliferation of HCC cells. This insulin-independent effect was associated with inhibition of multiple STPs (PKC, ERK, JNK and AKT). However, Metformin increased the relative proportion of LRCCs. Comparing LRCC vs. non-LRCC, this effect was associated with improved toxicity and apoptosis profiles, down-regulation of cell death genes and up-regulation of cell proliferation and survival genes in LRCC. Concomitantly, Metformin up-regulated pluripotency, Wnt, Notch and SHH pathways genes in LRCC vs. non-LRCC.
Conclusions: Metformin and Sorafenib have enhanced anti-cancer effects. However, in contradistinction to reports on other types of CSC, Metformin is less effective against HCC-derived-CSC LRCC. Our results suggest that combining Metformin with Sorafenib may be able to repress the bulk of tumor cells, but as with other anti-cancer drugs, may leave LRCC behind leading to cancer recurrence. Therefore, liver LRCC, unlike other types of CSC, are relatively resistant to the reported anti-cancer stem cell drug metformin. This is the first report that there is a type of CSC that is not relatively resistant to the CSC-targeting drug. Our findings suggest that a drug targeting LRCC may be critically needed to target CSC and prevent cancer recurrence. These may significantly contribute to the understanding of Metformin's anti-cancer effects and the development of novel drugs targeting the relatively resistant LRCC.
Keywords: Metformin, sorafenib, PKC/ERK/JNK/AKT phosphorylation, MAPK, stem-like label-retaining cancer cells, LRCC, HCC, cancer-stem-cells.