Microenvironmental hCAP-18/LL-37 promotes pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma by activating its cancer stem cell compartment

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Abstract

Objectives

The tumour stroma/microenvironment not only provides structural support for tumour development, but more importantly it provides cues to cancer stem cells (CSCs) that regulate their self-renewal and metastatic potential. This is certainly true for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDAC), where tumour-associated fibroblasts, pancreatic stellate cells and immune cells create an abundant paracrine niche for CSCs via microenvironment-secreted factors. Thus understanding the role that tumour stroma cells play in PDAC development and CSC biology is of utmost importance.

Design

Microarray analyses, tumour microarray immunohistochemical assays, in vitro co-culture experiments, recombinant protein treatment approaches and in vivo intervention studies were performed to understand the role that the immunomodulatory cationic antimicrobial peptide 18/LL-37 (hCAP-18/LL-37) plays in PDAC biology.

Results

We found that hCAP-18/LL-37 was strongly expressed in the stroma of advanced primary and secondary PDAC tumours and is secreted by immune cells of the stroma (eg, tumour-associated macrophages) in response to tumour growth factor-β1 and particularly CSC-secreted Nodal/ActivinA. Treatment of pancreatic CSCs with recombinant LL-37 increased pluripotency-associated gene expression, self-renewal, invasion and tumourigenicity via formyl peptide receptor 2 (FPR2)- and P2X purinoceptor 7 receptor (P2X7R)-dependent mechanisms, which could be reversed by inhibiting these receptors. Importantly, in a genetically engineered mouse model of K-Ras-driven pancreatic tumourigenesis, we also showed that tumour formation was inhibited by either reconstituting these mice with bone marrow from cathelicidin-related antimicrobial peptide (ie, murine homologue of hCAP-18/LL-37) knockout mice or by pharmacologically inhibiting FPR2 and P2X7R.

Conclusions

Thus, hCAP-18/LL-37 represents a previously unrecognised PDAC microenvironment factor that plays a critical role in pancreatic CSC-mediated tumourigenesis.

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