Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a major cause of increases in the mortality rate due to cancer that usually develops in patients with liver fibrosis and impaired hepatic immunity. Hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) may directly or indirectly crosstalk with various hepatic cells and subsequently modulate extracellular remodeling, cell invasion, macrophage conversion, and cancer deterioration. In this regard, the tumor microenvironment created by activated HSC plays a critical role in mediating pathogenesis and immune escape during HCC progression. Herein, intermediately differentiated human liver cancer cell line (J5) cells were co-cultured with HSC-conditioned medium (HSC-CM); changes in cell phenotype and cytokine profiles were analyzed to assess the impact of HSCs on the development of hepatoma. The stage of liver fibrosis correlated significantly with tumor grade, and the administration of conditioned medium secreted by activated HSC (aHSC-CM) could induce the expression of N-cadherin, cell migration, and invasive potential, as well as the activity of matrix metalloproteinases in J5 cells, implying that aHSC-CM could trigger the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Next, the HSC-CM was further investigated and network analysis indicated that specific cytokines and soluble proteins, such as activin A, released from activated HSCs could remarkably affect the tumor-associated immune microenvironment involved in macrophage polarization, which would, in turn, diminish a host’s immune surveillance and drive hepatoma cells into a more malignant phenotype. Together, our findings provide a novel insight into the integral roles of HSCs to enhance hepatocarcinogenesis through their immune-modulatory properties and suggest that HSC may serve as a potent target for the treatment of advanced HCC.
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