Tumor metastasis involves circulating and tumor-initiating capacities of metastatic cancer cells. Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is related to self-renewal capacity and circulating tumor cell (CTC) characteristics for tumor metastasis. Although tumor metastasis is a life-threatening, complicated process that occurs through circulation of tumor cells, mechanistic aspects of self-renewal and circulating capacities have been largely unknown. Hepatic transmembrane 4 L six family member 5 (TM4SF5) promotes EMT for malignant growth and migration, so it was rationalized that TM4SF5, as a hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) biomarker, might be important for metastatic potential. Here, self-renewal capacity by TM4SF5 was mechanistically explored using hepatocarcinoma cells with or without TM4SF5 expression, and we explored whether they became CTCs using mouse liver-orthotopic model systems. We found that TM4SF5-dependent sphere growth correlated with CD24-, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) activity, as well as a physical association between CD44 and TM4SF5. Interaction between TM4SF5 and CD44 was through their extracellular domains with N-glycosylation modifications. TM4SF5/CD44 interaction activated proto-oncogene tyrosine-protein kinase Src (c-Src)/signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3)/Twist-related protein 1 (Twist1)/B-cell-specific Moloney murine leukemia virus integration site 1 (Bmi1) signaling for spheroid formation, whereas disturbing the interaction, expression, or activity of any component in this signaling pathway inhibited spheroid formation. In serial xenografts using 200~5,000 cells per injection, TM4SF5-positive tumors exhibited subpopulations with locally increased CD44 expressions, supporting for tumor cell differentiation. TM4SF5-positive, but not TM4SF5- or CD44-knocked-down, cells were identified circulating in blood 4-6 weeks after orthotopic liver injection using in vivo laser scanning endomicroscopy. Anti-TM4SF5 reagent blocked their metastasis to distal intestinal organs. Conclusion: TM4SF5 promotes self-renewal and CTC properties supported by TM4SF5+/CD44+(TM4SF5-bound)/ALDH+/CD24- markers during HCC metastasis.
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