The CCL20/CCR6 chemokine/receptor axis has previously been shown to contribute to the initiation and progression of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) through the recruitment of CCR6-positive leukocytes to the tumor microenvironment. In particular, high serum levels of CCL20 are reported in patients with HCC induced by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). A potential non-immune role for the CCL20/CCR6 axis in HCC development has not yet been investigated.
Microarray analysis (Benkheil et al., paper submitted for publication), revealed that CCL20 is highly upregulated in hepatoma cells infected with HCV compared with non-infected hepatoma cells. To determine the role of the CCL20/CCR6 axis in HCV-related HCC, we first explored which cell populations express CCR6 in human liver tissue with chronic disease or HCC. Immunohistochemical (IHC) analysis revealed that CCR6 is present on endothelial cells (ECs) of portal blood vessels in livers with chronic HCV infection and in HCV- and alcoholic-HCC tissue. In addition, we found CCR6 to be expressed on primary macrovascular (HUVECs) and microvascular ECs (HMVEC-ds) where it co-expressed with the endothelial marker CD31. In vitro angiogenesis experiments revealed that CCL20 is a direct pro-angiogenic molecule that induces EC invasion, sprouting and migration through CCR6. Moreover, using the angiogenesis matrigel plug assay in immunodeficient NMRI-nu mice, we clearly showed that CCL20 induces blood vessel formation, by attracting CCR6-positive ECs. Finally, we demonstrated that HCV-induced CCL20 protein expression and secretion in hepatoma cells could be abolished by antiviral treatment, indicating that CCL20 expression is dependent on HCV replication. In contrast to HCV, HBV-infection resulted in a decreased expression of CCL20, implying a virus-specific effect.
Taken together, we identified HCV-induced CCL20 as a direct pro-angiogenic factor that acts on endothelial CCR6. These results suggest that the CCL20/CCR6 axis contributes to hepatic angiogenesis, promoting the hypervascular state of HCV-HCC.