Tumor–stromal cell interaction under hypoxia increases the invasiveness of pancreatic cancer cells through the hepatocyte growth factor/c-Met pathway

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The hypoxic environment in tumor is reported to play an important role in pancreatic cancer progression. The interaction between stromal and cancer cells also contributes to the malignant behavior of pancreatic cancer. In the present study, we investigated whether hypoxic stimulation affects stromal as well as pancreatic cancer cells. Our findings demonstrated that hypoxia remarkably elevated the HIF-1α expression in both pancreatic cancer (PK8) and fibroblast cells (MRC5). Hypoxic stimulation accelerated the invasive activity of PK8 cells, and invasiveness was thus further accelerated when the hypoxic PK8 cells were cultured with conditioned medium prepared from hypoxic MRC5 cells (hypoxic conditioned medium). MMP-2, MMP-7, MT1-MMP and c-Met expressions were increased in PK8 cells under hypoxia. Hypoxic stimulation also increased the hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) secretion from MRC5 cells, which led to an elevation of c-Met phosphorylation in PK8 cells. Conversely, the elevated cancer invasion, MMP activity and c-Met phosphorylation of PK8 cells were reduced by the removal of HGF from hypoxic conditioned medium. In immunohistochemical study, the HIF-1α expression was observed in surrounding stromal as well as pancreatic cancer cells, thus indicating hypoxia exists in both of cancer and stromal cells. Moreover, the stromal HGF expression was found to significantly correlate with not only the stromal HIF-1α expression but also the c-Met expression in cancer cells. These results indicate that the hypoxic environment within stromal as well as cancer cells activates the HGF/c-Met system, thereby contributing to the aggressive invasive features of pancreatic cancer.

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