Epigenetic correlates of the head and neck cancer may illuminate its pathogenic roots. Through a gene set enrichment analysis, we found that the oncogenic transcription factor RUNX2 is widely upregulated in the head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) with lymph node metastasis, where it also predicts poor prognosis in patients with HNSCC. Enforced expression of ectopic RUNX2 promoted the metastatic capabilities of HNSCC, whereas RUNX2 silencing inhibited these features. Mechanistic investigations showed that manipulating levels of activin A (INHBA) could rescue or compromise the RUNX2-mediated metastatic capabilities of HNSCC cells. Furthermore, we found that miR-376c-3p encoded within the 3′-untranslated region of RUNX2 played a pivotal role in regulating RUNX2 expression in highly metastatic HNSCC cells, where it was downregulated commonly. Restoring miR-376c expression in this setting suppressed expression of RUNX2/INHBA axis along with metastatic capability. Clinically, we observed an inverse relationship between miR-376c-3p expression and the RUNX2/INHBA axis in HNSCC specimens. In summary, our results defined a novel pathway in which dysregulation of the RUNX2/INHBA axis due to miR-376c downregulation fosters lymph node metastasis in HNSCC.
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