Background & Aims: The heparin-binding growth factors fibroblast growth factor (FGF) and hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) are potent mitogens for hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). Heparin-binding growth factor signaling is regulated by sulfation of cell-surface heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs). We hypothesized that hSulf1, a recently described sulfatase, regulates growth signaling in HCCs. Methods: Expression of hSulf1 in human HCC tumors was determined by real-time PCR. Down-regulation of hSulf1 expression was investigated by analyzing loss of heterozygosity (LOH) at the hSulf1 locus and the effect of the DNA methylation inhibitor 5-aza-deoxycytidine on hSulf1 expression. The subcellular location of hSulf1 and sulfation state of cell-surface HSPGs were assessed by immunocytochemistry. FGF and HGF signaling was examined by phospho-specific immunoblot analysis. Cell growth was measured by trypan blue exclusion, and the MTT assay and apoptosis were quantitated by fluorescence microscopy. Results: hSulf1 expression was decreased in 29% of HCCs and 82% of HCC cell lines. There was LOH at the hSulf1 locus in 42% of HCCs. Treatment with 5-aza-deoxycytidine reactivated hSulf1 expression in hSulf1-negative cell lines. Low hSulf1-expressing cells showed increased sulfation of cell-surface HSPGs, enhanced FGF and HGF-mediated signaling, and increased HCC cell growth. Conversely, forced expression of hSulf1 decreased sulfation of cell-surface HSPGs and abrogated growth signaling. HCC cells with high-level hSulf1 expression were sensitive to staurosporine or cisplatin-induced apoptosis, whereas low expressing cells were resistant. Transfection of hSulf1 into hSulf1-negative cells restored staurosporine and cisplatin sensitivity. Conclusions: Down-regulation of hSulf1 contributes to hepatocarcinogenesis by enhancing heparin-binding growth factor signaling and resistance to apoptosis.
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