Y-box binding protein-1 (YB-1) is a pleiotropic molecule that binds DNA to regulate genes on a transcriptional level in the nucleus and binds RNA to modulate gene translation in the cytoplasm. In our previous studies, YB-1 was also characterized as a fetal hepatic protein that regulates the maturation of hepatocytes and is upregulated during liver regeneration. Moreover, YB-1 has been shown to be expressed in human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). However, the role of YB-1 in HCC remains unclear. Here, we aimed to characterize the role of YB-1 in HCC. Based on the results of loss-of-function in HCC and gain-of-function in mice liver using hydrodynamic gene delivery, YB-1 promoted hepatic cells proliferation in vitro and in vivo. YB-1 was also involved in HCC cell proliferation, migration, and drug-resistance. The results of extreme limiting dilution sphere forming analysis and cancer initiating cell marker analysis were also shown that YB-1 maintained HCC initiating cells population. YB-1 also induced the epithelial-mesenchymal transition and stemness-related gene expression. Knockdown of YB-1 suppressed the expression of Wnt ligands and β-catenin, impaired Wnt/β-catenin signaling pathway and reduced the numbers of HCC initiating cells. Moreover, YB-1 displayed nuclear localization particularly in the HCC initiating cells, the EpCAM+ cells or sphere cells. Our findings suggested that YB-1 was a key factor in HCC tumorigenesis and maintained the HCC initiating cell population.
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