BACKGROUND & AIMS: C/EBP alpha (cebpa) is a putative tumor suppressor. However, initial results indicated that cebpa was up-regulated in a subset of human hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs). The regulation and function of C/EBP alpha was investigated in HCC cell lines to clarify its role in liver carcinogenesis. METHODS: The regulation of C/EBP alpha expression was studied by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR), Western blotting, immunohistochemistry, methylation-specific PCR, and chromatin immunoprecipitation assays. C/EBP alpha expression was knocked-down by small interfering RNA or short hairpin RNA. Functional assays included colony formation, methylthiotetrazole, bromodeoxyuridine incorporation, and luciferase-reporter assays. RESULTS: Cebpa was up-regulated at least 2-fold in a subset (approximately 55%) of human HCCs compared with adjacent non tumor tissues. None of the up-regulated samples were positive for hepatitis C infection. The HCC cell lines Hep3B and Huh7 expressed high, PLC/PRF/5 intermediate, HepG2 and HCC-M low levels of C/EBP alpha, recapitulating the pattern of expression observed in HCCs. No mutations were detected in the CEBP alpha gene in HCCs and cell lines. C/EBP alpha was localized to the nucleus and functional in Hep3B and Huh7 cells; knocking-down its expression reduced target-gene expression, colony formation, and cell growth, associated with a decrease in cyclin A and CDK4 concentrations and E2F transcriptional activity. Epigenetic mechanisms including DNA methylation, and the binding of acetylated histone H3 to the CEBP alpha promoter-regulated cebpa expression in the HCC cells. CONCLUSIONS: C/EBP alpha is up-regulated in a subset of HCCs and has growth-promoting activities in HCC cells. Novel oncogenic mechanisms involving C/EBP alpha may be amenable to epigenetic regulation to improve treatment outcomes.
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