Tumor-Associated Neutrophils Recruit Macrophages and T-Regulatory Cells to Promote Progression of Hepatocellular Carcinoma and Resistance to Sorafenib

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Background & Aims Neutrophils can either promote or inhibit tumor progression, depending on the tumor microenvironment, via release of cytokines. Neither the factors produced by tumor-associated neutrophils (TANs) nor their effects on tumor progression have been characterized. We investigated the roles of TANs in progression of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) using cell lines and immune cells isolated from patients. Methods We performed studies with HepG2, PLC/PRF/5, MHCC97H, and HCCLM3 human and Hepa1-6 and H22 mouse HCC cell lines; expression of chemokines and cytokines were knocked down with small hairpin RNAs. Cells were analyzed in chemotaxis assays and as growth as tumors in mice. HCC tissues and peripheral blood were collected from 20 patients undergoing curative resection or 20 healthy individuals (controls) in 2012 at Zhongshan Hospital in China. TANs and peripheral blood neutrophils (PBNs) were isolated and exposed to conditioned media from HCC cell lines; reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction was used to quantify the expression of cytokines and chemokines. We collected neutrophils from another 60 patients undergoing curative resection for HCC in 2012 to measure the production of C-C motif chemokine ligand 2(CCL2) and CCL17. Patients were followed up until March 15, 2014. For immunohistochemical analyses, we collected HCC tissues and paired, adjacent, nontumor cirrhotic liver tissues from 832 HCC patients undergoing curative resection from 2006 through 2008. All patients were followed up until March 15, 2013. To study the effects of sorafenib, we collected clinical and pathology data from 46 patients who underwent curative resection in 2010. Results CCL2 and CCL17 were the cytokines most highly expressed by TANs and HCC cell-activated PBNs. Levels of CCL2 and CCL17 messenger RNAs and proteins were significantly higher in TANs than in PBNs, and increased in patients with HCC recurrence. CCL2 and CCL17 messenger RNA and proteins also increased when PBNs were exposed to conditioned media from HCC cell lines. Immunohistochemical analysis of a tissue microarray showed that CCL2+ and CCL17+ cells, which also expressed the neutrophil marker CD66b, were distributed throughout the HCC stroma, but not in tumor cells or the adjacent nontumor liver cells. The number of CCL2+ or CCL17+ TANs correlated with tumor size, microvascular invasion, tumor encapsulation, tumor differentiation, and stage. Patients whose tumors had lower levels of CCL2+ or CCL17+ cells had longer survival times than those with higher numbers of these cells. TAN-conditioned media, as well as recombinant CCL2 and CCL17, increased the migratory activity of the macrophages and T-regulatory (Treg) cells from patients or mice with HCC to a greater extent that PBN-conditioned media. Neutralizing antibodies against CCL2 and CCL17, or their receptors C-C chemokine receptor 2 and C-C chemokine receptor 4, reduced the migratory activities of macrophage and Treg cells. HCC cell lines injected into mice formed larger tumors when they were co-injected with TANs and formed more pulmonary metastases; these tumors were infiltrated by Ly6G+ cells, F4/80+ macrophages, and Foxp3+ Treg cells. In a phosphokinase array of human PBNs, levels of phosphorylated AKT and P38 increased after exposure to conditioned media from all 4 HCC cell types. Pharmacologic inhibitors of AKT and P38 inhibited secretion of CCL2 and CCL17 by these PBNs. In tumor-bearing mice, sorafenib increased the numbers of TANs and levels of CCL2 and CCL17 in tumors. HCC tissues from patients who received sorafenib before surgery contained more TANs than tissues from patients who did not receive sorafenib. In knockdown cells, HCC cell-derived CXCL5 was the strongest effector of neutrophil migration under hypoxic conditions. In mice, the combination of sorafenib and TAN depletion inhibited tumor growth and neovascularization to a greater extent than sorafenib alone. Conclusions TANs recruit macrophages and Treg cells to HCCs to promote their growth, progression, and resistance to sorafenib.




Zhou, S. L., Zhou, Z. J., Hu, Z. Q., Huang, X. W., Wang, Z., Chen, E. B., … Zhou, J. (2016). Tumor-Associated Neutrophils Recruit Macrophages and T-Regulatory Cells to Promote Progression of Hepatocellular Carcinoma and Resistance to Sorafenib. Gastroenterology, 150(7), 1646-1658.e17. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2016.02.040

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