Liver microenvironment is a critical determinant for development and progression of liver metastasis. Under transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) stimulation, hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), which are liver-specific pericytes, transdifferentiate into tumor-associated myofibroblasts that promote tumor implantation (TI) and growth in the liver. However, the regulation of this HSC activation process remains poorly understood. In this study, we tested whether vasodilator-stimulated phosphoprotein (VASP) of HSCs regulated the TGF-β-mediated HSC activation process and tumor growth. In both an experimental liver metastasis mouse model and cancer patients, colorectal cancer cells reaching liver sinusoids induced up-regulation of VASP and alpha-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) in adjacent HSCs. VASP knockdown in HSCs inhibited TGF-β-mediated myofibroblastic activation of HSCs, TI, and growth in mice. Mechanistically, VASP formed protein complexes with TGF-β receptor II (TβRII) and Rab11, a Ras-like small GTPase and key regulator of recycling endosomes. VASP knockdown impaired Rab11 activity and Rab11-dependent targeting of TβRII to the plasma membrane, thereby desensitizing HSCs to TGF-β1 stimulation. Conclusions: Our study demonstrates a requirement of VASP for TGF-β-mediated HSC activation in the tumor microenvironment by regulating Rab11-dependent recycling of TβRII to the plasma membrane. VASP and its effector, Rab11, in the tumor microenvironment thus present therapeutic targets for reducing TI and metastatic growth in the liver.
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