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SNAI1 Promotes the Cholangiocellular Phenotype, but not Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition, in a Murine Hepatocellular Carcinoma Model

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Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer and has limited treatment options. Snail family transcriptional repressor 1 (SNAI1) is a master regulator of epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) and has been implicated in HCC initiation and progression. However, the precise role of SNAI1 and the way it contributes to hepatocarcinogenesis have not been investigated in depth, especially in vivo. Here, we analyzed the functional relevance of SNAI1 in promoting hepatocarcinogenesis in the context of the AKT/c-Met–driven mouse liver tumor model (AKT/c-Met/SNAI1). Overexpression of SNAI1 did not accelerate AKT/c-Met–induced HCC development or induce metastasis in mice. Elevated SNAI1 expression rather led to the formation of cholangiocellular (CCA) lesions in the mouse liver, a phenotype that was paralleled by increased activation of Yap and Notch. Ablation of Yap strongly inhibited AKT/c-Met/SNAI-induced HCC and CCA development, whereas inhibition of the Notch pathway specifically blocked the CCA-like phenotype in mice. Intriguingly, overexpression of SNAI1 failed to induce EMT, indicated by strong E-cadherin expression and lack of vimentin expression by AKT/c-Met/SNAI tumor cells. SNAI1 mRNA levels strongly correlated with the expression of CCA markers, including SOX9, CK19, and EPCAM, but not with EMT markers such as E-CADHERIN and ZO-1, in human HCC samples. Overall, our findings suggest SNAI1 regulates the CCA-like phenotype in hepatocarcinogenesis via regulation of Yap and Notch.Significance:These findings report a new function of SNAI1 to promote cholangiocellular transdifferentiation instead of epithelial–mesenchymal transition in hepatocellular carcinoma.



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