Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is comprised of heterogeneous populations of cells, and CD271 (NGFR; p75NTR) has been associated with a tumor-initiating cell subpopulation. This study assessed the role of CD271 in modulating metastatic behavior in HNSCC.CD271 was overexpressed in murine and human oral squamous cell carcinoma cells to assess the impact of CD271 activation on the invasive and metastatic phenotype of these cells, using in vitro and orthotopic in vivo modeling. Treatment with human nerve growth factor (NGF) to activate CD271, as well as shRNA knockdown of the CD271-upregulated Snai2 expression, was used to assess the mechanism of the CD271-induced invasive phenotype. Relevance of CD271 expression in human HNSCC was evaluated in patient derived xenografts (PDXs) and primary human oral cancers, annotated with clinical behavior characteristics and survival data.Forced expression of CD271 resulted in a more invasive and metastatic phenotype. Slug, an epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT)-related transcription factor, encoded by Snai2, was highly expressed in MOC2-CD271 and HSC3-CD271, compared to respective parental cells. CD271 activation by NGF conferred enhanced invasiveness in CD271-overexpressing cells, which was abrogated by Snai2 knockdown. In PDXs and primary human HNSCC, CD271 expression correlated with higher Snai2 expression, greater nodal metastasis, and shorter disease-free survival.Activation of CD271 results in upregulation of Snai2/Slug, which, in turn, results in a more invasive phenotype and an enhanced capacity for metastasis to regional lymph nodes. These findings point to CD271 as a promising, therapeutic target for oral cancer metastasis.
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