Dual Targeting of Sorafenib-Resistant HCC-Derived Cancer Stem Cells

Sorafenib, an oral multi-tyrosine kinase inhibitor, has been the first-line therapy for the treatment of patients with advanced HCC, providing a survival benefit of only three months in approximately 30% of patients. Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are a rare tumour subpopulation with self-renewal and differentiation capabilities, and have been implicated in tumour growth, recurrence and drug resistance. The process of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) contributes to the generation and maintenance of the CSC population, resulting in immune evasion and therapy resistance in several cancers, including HCC. The aim of this study is to target the chemoresistant CSC population in HCC by assessing the effectiveness of a combination treatment approach with Sorafenib, an EMT inhibitor and an immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI). A stem-cell-conditioned serum-free medium was utilised to enrich the CSC population from the human HCC cell lines Hep3B, PLC/PRF/5 and HepG2. The anchorage independent spheres were characterised for CSC features. The human HCC-derived spheres were assessed for EMT status and expression of immune checkpoint molecules. The effect of combination treatment with SB431542, an EMT inhibitor, and siRNA-mediated knockdown of programmed cell death protein ligand-1 (PD-L1) or CD73 along with Sorafenib on human HCC-derived CSCs was examined with cell viability and apoptosis assays. The three-dimensional spheres enriched from human HCC cell lines demonstrated CSC-like features. The human HCC-derived CSCs also exhibited the EMT phenotype along with the upregulation of immune checkpoint molecules. The combined treatment with SB431542 and siRNA-mediated PD-L1 or CD73 knockdown effectively enhanced the cytotoxicity of Sorafenib against the CSC population compared to Sorafenib alone, as evidenced by the reduced size and proliferation of spheres. Furthermore, the combination treatment of Sorafenib with SB431542 and PD-L1 or CD73 siRNA resulted in an increased proportion of an apoptotic population, as evidenced by flow cytometry analysis. In conclusion, the combined targeting of EMT and immune checkpoint molecules with Sorafenib can effectively target the CSC tumour subpopulation.

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S1067 SB431542 SB431542 is a potent and selective inhibitor of ALK5 with IC50 of 94 nM in a cell-free assay, 100-fold more selective for ALK5 than p38 MAPK and other kinases. (441) (11)

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