1. Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
2. Gallipoli Medical Research Institute, Greenslopes Private Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
3. Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia.
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of primary liver cancer with a high mortality rate. Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) confers cancer cells with immune evasive ability by modulating the expression of immune checkpoints in many cancers. Thus, the aim of our study is to examine the interplay between EMT and immune checkpoint molecules in HCC. A reversible EMT model was utilised with transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 as an EMT inducer for HCC cell lines Hep3B and PLC/PRF/5. HCC cells were treated with TGF-β1 for 72 h and the EMT status and immune checkpoint expression were examined. In addition, the migratory ability of HCC cells were examined using wound healing and transwell migration assays in the reversible EMT model. siRNA-mediated knockdown of immune checkpoint molecule, B7-H3, was further utilised to validate the association between TGF-β1-mediated EMT and immune checkpoint expression in HCC. In addition, a web-based platform, SurvExpress, was utilised to evaluate the association between expression of TGF-β1 in combination with immune checkpoint molecules and overall survival in HCC patients. We observed induction of EMT upon treatment of HCC cells with TGF-β1 revealed by reduced expression of epithelial markers along with increased expression of mesenchymal markers. Withdrawal of TGF-β1 reversed the process of EMT with elevated expression of epithelial markers and reduced expression of mesenchymal markers. TGF-β1 treatment elevated the migratory potential of HCC cells which was reversed following reversal assay. Notably, during TGF-β1-induced EMT, there was upregulation of immune checkpoint molecules PD-L1 and B7-H3. However, the reversal of EMT decreased the expression of PD-L1 and B7-H3. In addition, TGF-β1 driven EMT was reversed following knockdown of B7-H3 in both HCC cells further validating the interplay between TGF-β1-mediated EMT and immune checkpoint expression in HCC. Furthermore, the coordinate expression of TGF-β1 with PD-L1 (p=0.01487) and B7-H3 (p=0.009687) was correlated with poor overall survival in 422 HCC patients. Our study has demonstrated a close association between TGF-β1-mediated EMT and regulation of immune checkpoints in HCC.
Keywords: immune checkpoint molecules, epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, transforming growth factor-β1, hepatocellular carcinoma