Hypoxia-induced autophagy drives colorectal cancer initiation and progression by activating the PRKC/PKC-EZR (ezrin) pathway.
In solid tumors, cancer stem cells (CSCs) or tumor-initiating cells (TICs) are often found in hypoxic niches. Nevertheless, the influence of hypoxia on TICs is poorly understood. Using previously established, TIC-enrichedpatient-derived colorectal cancer (CRC) cultures, we show that hypoxia increases the self-renewal capacity of TICs while inducing proliferation arrest in their more differentiated counterpart cultures. Gene expression data revealed macroautophagy/autophagy as one of the major pathways induced by hypoxia in TICs. Interestingly, hypoxia-induced autophagy was found to induce phosphorylation of EZR (ezrin) at Thr567 residue, which could be reversed by knocking down ATG5, BNIP3, BNIP3L, or BECN1. Furthermore, we identified PRKCA/PKCalpha as a potential kinase involved in hypoxia-induced autophagy-mediated TIC self-renewal. Genetic targeting of autophagy or pharmacological inhibition of PRKC/PKC and EZR resulted in decreased tumor-initiating potential of TICs. In addition, we observed significantly reduced in vivo tumor initiation and growth after a stable knockdown of ATG5. Analysis of human CRC samples showed that p-EZR is often present in TICs located in the hypoxic and autophagic regions of the tumor. Altogether, our results establish the hypoxia-autophagy-PKC-EZR signaling axis as a novel regulatory mechanism of TIC self-renewal and CRC progression. Autophagy inhibition might thus represent a promising therapeutic strategy for cancer patients. ABBREVIATIONS: ATG: autophagy related; BECN1: beclin 1; BNIP3: BCL2 interacting protein 3; BNIP3L: BCL2 interacting protein 3 like; CQ: chloroquine; CSC: cancer stem cells; CRC: colorectal cancer; HIF1A/HIF-1alpha: hypoxia inducible factor 1 subunit alpha; MAP1LC3/LC3: microtubule associated protein 1 light chain 3; PRKC/PKC: protein kinase C; SQSTM1/p62: sequestosome 1; TICs: tumor-initiating cells.