VEGF drives cancer-initiating stem cells through VEGFR-2/Stat3 signaling to upregulate Myc and Sox2

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Abstract

Vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF), a potent angiogenic factor, is also implicated in self-renewal in several normal tissue types. VEGF has been shown to drive malignant stem cells but mechanisms thereof and tumor types affected are not fully characterized. Here, we show VEGF promotes breast and lung cancer stem cell (CSC) self-renewal via VEGF receptor-2 (VEGFR-2)/ STAT3-mediated upregulation of Myc and Sox2. VEGF increased tumor spheres and aldehyde dehydrogenase activity, both proxies for stem cell function in vitro, in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) lines and dissociated primary cancers, and in lung cancer lines. VEGF exposure before injection increased breast cancer-initiating cell abundance in vivo yielding increased orthotopic tumors, and increased metastasis from orthotopic primaries and following tail vein injection without further VEGF treatment. VEGF rapidly stimulated VEGFR-2/JAK2/STAT3 binding and activated STAT3 to bind MYC and SOX2 promoters and induce their expression. VEGFR-2 knockdown or inhibition abrogated VEGF-mediated STAT3 activation, MYC and SOX2 induction and sphere formation. Notably, knockdown of either STAT3, MYC or SOX2 impaired VEGF-upregulation of pSTAT3, MYC and SOX2 expression and sphere formation. Each transcription factor, once upregulated, appears to promote sustained activation of the others, creating a feedforward loop to drive self-renewal. Thus, in addition to angiogenic effects, VEGF promotes tumor-initiating cell self-renewal through VEGFR-2/STAT3 signaling. Analysis of primary breast and lung cancers (>1300 each) showed high VEGF expression, was prognostic of poor outcome and strongly associated with STAT3 and MYC expression, supporting the link between VEGF and CSC self-renewal. High-VEGF tumors may be most likely to escape anti-angiogenics by upregulating VEGF, driving CSC self-renewal to re-populate post-treatment. Our work highlights the need to better define VEGF-driven cancer subsets and supports further investigation of combined therapeutic blockade of VEGF or VEGFR-2 and JAK2/STAT3.

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