In patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) receiving sorafenib, drug resistance is common. HCC develops in a microenvironment enriched with extracellular matrix proteins including laminin (Ln)-332, produced by hepatic stellate cells (HSCs). Ln-332 is the ligand of α3β1 and α6β4 integrins, differently expressed on the HCC cell surface, that deliver intracellular pathways. The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of Ln-332 on sorafenib's effectiveness. HCC cells were challenged with sorafenib in the presence of Ln-332 and of HSC conditioned medium (CM). Sorafenib impaired HCC cell proliferation and induced apoptosis. HSC-CM or Ln-332 inhibited sorafenib's effectiveness in HCC cells expressing both α3β1 and α6β4. Inhibiting α3 but not α6 integrin subunit using blocking antibodies or small interfering RNA abrogated the protection induced by Ln-332 and HSC-CM. Hep3B cells expressing α6β4 but lacking the α3 integrin were insensitive to Ln-332 and HSC-CM protective effects. Hep3B α3-positive, but not wild-type and scramble transfected, cells acquired protection by sorafenib when plated on Ln-332-CM or HSCs. Sorafenib dephosphorylated focal adhesion kinase (FAK) and extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2, whereas Ln-332 and HSC-CM partially restored the pathways. Silencing FAK, but not extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2, abrogated the protection induced by Ln-332 and HSC-CM, suggesting a specific role for FAK. Sorafenib down-regulated total FAK, inducing its proteasomal degradation, while Ln-332 and HSC-CM promoted the escape of FAK from ubiquitination, probably inducing a preferential membrane localization. Conclusion: This study unveils a novel mechanism of sorafenib resistance depending on the α3β1/Ln-332 axis and requiring FAK ubiquitination, providing new insights into personalizing therapy for patients with HCC. (Hepatology 2016;64:2103-2117).
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