Loss of the SxxSS Motif in a Human T-Cell Factor-4 Isoform Confers Hypoxia Resistance to Liver Cancer: An Oncogenic Switch in Wnt Signaling
Aberrantly activated Wnt/β-catenin signaling is important in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) development. Downstream gene expressions involving the Wnt/β-catenin cascade occur through T-cell factor (TCF) proteins. Here, we show the oncogenic potential of human TCF-4 isoforms based on the expression of a single conserved SxxSS motif. We investigated the TCF-4J and K isoform pair characterized by the presence (K) or absence (J) of the SxxSS motif. The mRNA expression profiles were examined in 47 pairs of human HCCs and adjacent non-cancerous liver tissues by RT-PCR. Proliferation, sphere assays and immunoblot analysis were performed under normoxia and hypoxia conditions. The ability of HCC cells overexpressing TCF-4J (J cells) and K (K cells) to grow as solid tumors in nude mice was explored. TCF-4J expression was significantly upregulated in HCC tumors compared to corresponding peritumor and normal liver and was preferentially expressed in poorly differentiated HCCs. In contrast, TCF-4K was downregulated in those same HCC tumors. TCF-4J-overexpressing HCC cells (J cells) revealed a survival advantage under hypoxic conditions, high proliferation rate and formation of aggregates/spheres compared to overexpression of TCF-4K (K cells). The hypoxic J cells had high expression levels of HIF-2α and EGFR as possible mechanisms to promote tumorigenesis. Increased stability of HIF-2α under hypoxia in J cells was associated with a decreased level of von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) protein, a known E3 ligase for HIF-αs. In a xenograft model, the J cells rapidly developed tumors compared to K cells. Tumor tissues derived from J cells exhibited high expression levels of HIF-2α and EGFR compared to the slow developing and small K cell derived tumors. Our results suggest that the specific TCF-4J isoform, which lacks a regulatory SxxSS motif, has robust tumor-initiating potential under hypoxic conditions.