PAF1 Regulates Stem Cell Features of Pancreatic Cancer Cells, Independently of the PAF1 Complex, via Interactions with PHF5A and DDX3.

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It is not clear how pancreatic cancer stem cells (CSCs) are regulated, resulting in ineffective treatments for pancreatic cancer. PAF1, a RNA polymerase II-associated factor 1 complex (PAF1C) component, maintains pluripotency of stem cells, by unclear mechanisms, and is a marker of CSCs. We investigated mechanisms by which PAF1 maintains CSCs and contributes to development of pancreatic tumors.Pancreatic cancer cell lines were engineered to knockdown PAF1 using inducible small hairpin RNAs. These cells were grown as orthotopic tumors in athymic nude mice and PAF1 knockdown was induced by administration of doxycycline in drinking water. Tumor growth and metastasis were monitored via IVIS imaging. CSCs were isolated from pancreatic cancer cell populations using flow cytometry and characterized by tumor sphere formation, tumor formation in nude mice, and expression of CSC markers. Isolated CSCs were depleted of PAF1 using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. PAF1-regulated genes in CSCs were identified via RNA-seq and PCR array analyses of cells with PAF1 knockdown. Proteins that interact with PAF1 in CSCs were identified by immunoprecipitations and mass spectrometry. We performed chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing of CSCs to confirm the binding of the PAF1 sub-complex to target genes.Pancreatic cancer cells depleted of PAF1 formed smaller and fewer tumor spheres in culture and orthotopic tumors and metastases in mice. Isolated CSCs depleted of PAF1 downregulated markers of self-renewal (NANOG, SOX9, and BETA-CATENIN), of CSCs (CD44v6, and ALDH1), and the metastasis-associated gene signature, compared to CSCs without knockdown of PAF1. The role of PAF1 in CSC maintenance was independent of its RNA polymerase II-associated factor 1 complex component identity. We identified DDX3 and PHF5A as proteins that interact with PAF1 in CSCs and demonstrated that the PAF1-PHF5A-DDX3 sub-complex bound to the promoter region of Nanog, whose product regulates genes that control stemness. Levels of the PAF1-DDX3 and PAF1-PHF5A were increased and co-localized in human pancreatic tumor specimens, human pancreatic tumor-derived organoids, and organoids derived from tumors of KPC mice, compared with controls. Binding of DDX3 and PAF1 to the Nanog promoter, and the self-renewal capacity of CSCs, were decreased in cells incubated with the DDX3 inhibitor RK-33. CSCs depleted of PAF1 downregulated genes that regulate stem cell features (Flot2, Taz, Epcam, Erbb2, Foxp1, Abcc5, Ddr1, Muc1, Pecam1, Notch3, Aldh1a3, Foxa2, Plat, and Lif).In pancreatic CSCs, PAF1 interacts with DDX3 and PHF5A to regulate expression of NANOG and other genes that regulate stemness. Knockdown of PAF1 reduces the ability of orthotopic pancreatic tumors to develop and progress in mice and their numbers of CSCs. Strategies to target the PAF1-PHF5A-DDX3 complex might be developed to slow or inhibit progression of pancreatic cancer.

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