The expression of cancer stemness is believed to reduce the efficacy of current therapies against hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Understanding of the stemness-regulating signaling pathways incurred by a specific etiology can facilitate the development of novel targets for individualized therapy against HCC. Niche environments, such as virus-induced inflammation, may play a crucial role. However, the mechanisms linking inflammation and stemness expression in HCC remain unclear. Here we demonstrated the distinct role of inflammatory mediators in expressions of stemness-related properties involving the pluripotent octamer-binding transcription factor 4 (OCT4) in cell migration and drug resistance of hepatitis B virus-related HCC (HBV-HCC). We observed positive immunorecognition for macrophage chemoattractant protein 1 (MCP-1)/CD68 and OCT4/NANOG in HBV-HCC tissues. The inflammation-conditioned medium (inflamed-CM) generated by lipopolysaccharide-stimulated U937 human leukemia cells significantly increased the mRNA and protein levels of OCT4/NANOG preferentially in HBV-active (HBV+HBsAg+) HCC cells. The inflamed-CM also increased the side population (SP) cell percentage, green fluorescent protein (GFP)-positive cell population, and luciferase activity of OCT4 promoter-GFP/luciferase in HBV-active HCC cells. Furthermore, the inflamed-CM upregulated the expressions of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I)/IGF-I receptor (IGF-IR) and activated IGF-IR/Akt signaling in HBV-HCC. The IGF-IR phosphorylation inhibitor picropodophyllin (PPP) suppressed inflamed-CM-induced OCT4 and NANOG levels in HBV+HBsAg+ Hep3B cells. Forced expression of OCT4 significantly increased the secondary sphere formation and cell migration, and reduced susceptibility of HBV-HCC cells to cisplatin, bleomycin, and doxorubicin. Taking together, our results show that niche inflammatory mediators play critical roles in inducing the expression of stemness-related properties involving IGF-IR activation, and the upregulation of OCT4 contributes to cancer migration and drug resistance of HBV-HCC cells. Findings in this paper would provide potential targets for a therapeutic strategy targeting on inflammatory environment for HBV-HCC.
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