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PLoS One. 2013 May 21;8(5):e63436. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063436. Print 2013.

TGF-β signaling is often attenuated during hepatotumorigenesis, but is retained for the malignancy of hepatocellular carcinoma cells.

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Liver Transplantation Center, The First Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing Medical University, Nanjing, China.


The role of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-β) signaling in hepatocarcinogenesis remains controversial. We aimed to reveal TGF-β signaling status in human and murine tissues of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and the mechanisms that mediate TGF-β's role in regulating HCC malignancy. Here, TGF-β pathway component expression and activation in human and murine HCC tissues were measured with quantitative RT-PCR and Western blotting assays. The role of TGF-β receptor and Smad signaling in the growth and survival of several HCC cell lines was determined with several in vitro and in vivo approaches. We found that TGF-β receptor II (TβRII) expression was downregulated in two different HCC patient cohorts. Consistently, Smad3 phosphorylation was also downregulated in HCC tissues in comparison to that in adjacent normal tissues. Interestingly, many HCC cell lines were sensitive to TGF-β and growth-inhibited by exogenous TGF-β. However, stable knockdown of TβRII inhibited cell growth on plastic and in soft agar, and induced apoptosis resulting in suppressed subcutaneous tumor growth and metastatic potential in vivo. Furthermore, knockdown of Smad4 also led to a significant inhibition of growth on plastic and in soft agar with concomitant increase of apoptosis, PTEN expression, and reduced nuclear accumulation of linker region-phosphorylated Smad3. Taken together, TGF-β signaling pathway plays a dichotomous role in hepatocellular carcinogenesis. It appears to suppress HCC development, but is retained for HCC cell survival and malignancy. Furthermore, Smad4 can mediate both growth inhibitory activity induced by exogenous TGF-β and the survival activity induced by autocrine TGF-β revealing a delicate selection of the two opposing activities of TGF-β during HCC evolution.

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