CAF-Associated Paracrine Signaling Worsens Outcome and Potentially Contributes to Chemoresistance in Epithelial Ovarian Cancer

Background: High-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) is the predominant and deadliest form of ovarian cancer. Some of its histological subtypes can be distinguished by frequent occurrence of cancer-associated myofibroblasts (CAFs) and desmoplastic stroma reaction (DSR). In this study, we want to explore the relationship between therapy outcome and the activity of CAF-associated signaling pathways in a homogeneous HGSOC patient collective. Furthermore, we want to validate these findings in a general Epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC) cohort.

Methods: The investigation cohort consists of 24 HGSOC patients. All of them were treated with platinum-based components and clinical follow-up was available. The validation cohort was comprised of 303 patients. Sequencing data (whole transcriptome) and clinical data were extracted from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). RNA of HGSOC patients was isolated using a Maxwell RSC instrument and the appropriate RNA isolation kit. For digital expression analysis a custom-designed gene panel was employed. All genes were linked to various DSR- and CAF- associated pathways. Expression analysis was performed on the NanoString nCounter platform. Finally, data were explored using the R programming environment (v. 4.0.3).

Result: In total, 15 CAF-associated genes were associated with patients' survival. More specifically, 6 genes (MMP13, CGA, EPHA3, PSMD9, PITX2, PHLPP1) were linked to poor therapy outcome. Though a variety of different pathways appeared to be associated with therapy failure, many were related to CAF paracrine signaling, including MAPK, Ras and TGF-β pathways. Similar results were obtained from the validation cohort.

Discussion: In this study, we could successfully link CAF-associated pathways, as shown by increased Ras, MAPK and PI3K-Akt signaling to therapy failure (chemotherapy) in HGSOC and EOCs in general. As platinum-based chemotherapy has been the state-of-the-art therapy to treat HGSOC for decades, it is necessary to unveil the reasons behind resistance developments and poor outcome. In this work, CAF-associated signaling is shown to compromise therapy response. In the validation cohort, CAF-associated signaling is also associated with therapy failure in general EOC, possibly hinting towards a conserved mechanism. Therefore, it may be helpful to stratify HGSOC patients for CAF activity and consider alternative treatment options.


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