Journal of Molecular Medicine

, Volume 97, Issue 2, pp 243–255 | Cite as

Cancer-associated fibroblasts promote the stemness of CD24+ liver cells via paracrine signaling

  • Yawen Li
  • Ronghua WangEmail author
  • Si Xiong
  • Xiju Wang
  • Zhenxiong Zhao
  • Shuya Bai
  • Yun Wang
  • Yuchong Zhao
  • Bin ChengEmail author
Original Article


Cancer stem cells (CSCs), which support tumor progress in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) developed in fibrotic or cirrhotic livers, are regulated by the tumor microenvironment. Cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) are the major component of the tumor stroma in HCC; however, the mechanisms by which CAFs contribute to stemness maintenance remain largely unknown. Here, we found that the expression of CD24 was high in HCC tissues compared with adjacent normal liver tissues, and positively correlated with the poor prognosis and α-SMA expression in CAFs. CD24+ cells isolated from HCC cell lines exhibited stemness properties of self-renewal, chemotherapy resistance, metastasis, and tumorigenicity in NOD/SCID mice. Moreover, CAF-derived HGF and IL6 enhanced the stemness properties of CD24+ cells via activating STAT3 Tyr705 phosphorylation. Blockade of HGF/c-Met or IL6/IL6R signaling significantly abolished the effect of CAFs on stemness properties, which compromised the activation of STAT3 pathway in CD24+ cells. Meanwhile, knockdown of STAT3 in CD24+ cells notably attenuated CAF-induced stemness characteristics of CD24+ cells. Furthermore, in HCC patients, higher expression of phospho-STAT3 was also demonstrated to be positively correlated with poor clinical outcomes. In summary, HGF and IL6 secreted by CAFs promoted the stemness properties of CD24+ cells through the phosphorylation of STAT3 signaling, and targeting the paracrine pathways may provide a new therapeutic strategy for HCC.

Key messages

  • CD24, identified as a marker for HCC CSCs, was positively correlated with the poor prognosis and α-SMA expression in CAFs.

  • CAFs promoted self-renewal, chemotherapy resistance, metastasis, and tumorigenicity of CD24+ HCC cells.

  • HGF and IL6 secreted by CAFs promoted the stemness properties of CD24+ HCC cells through the phosphorylation of STAT3.


Cancer stem cell Cancer-associated fibroblasts Hepatocellular carcinoma Interleukin-6 Hepatocyte growth factor STAT3 


Funding information

This work was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (81172063 and 81372352).

Compliance with ethical standards

All human studies were approved by the Ethical Committee of Tongji Hospital, Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST, Wuhan, China) (IRB ID: TJ-C20160117) and informed consent was obtained from each patient. The animal studies were conducted according to Tongji Hospital Institutional Review Board Approval of Experimental Animals (IRB ID: TJ-A20161205).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yawen Li
    • 1
  • Ronghua Wang
    • 1
    Email author
  • Si Xiong
    • 1
  • Xiju Wang
    • 1
  • Zhenxiong Zhao
    • 1
  • Shuya Bai
    • 1
  • Yun Wang
    • 1
  • Yuchong Zhao
    • 1
  • Bin Cheng
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Tongji Hospital, Tongji Medical CollegeHuazhong University of Science and TechnologyWuhanChina

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