It is well established that lung tumors induce the formation of lymphatic vessels. However, the molecular mechanisms controlling tumor lymphangiogenesis in lung cancer have not been fully delineated. In the present study, we identify a panel of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines that induce lymphangiogenesis and use genome-wide mRNA expression to characterize the molecular mechanisms regulating tumor lymphangiogenesis. We show that Calu-1, H1993, HCC461, HCC827, and H2122 NSCLC cell lines form tumors that induce lymphangiogenesis whereas Calu-3, H1155, H1975, and H2073 NSCLC cell lines form tumors that do not induce lymphangiogenesis. By analyzing genome-wide mRNA expression data, we identify a 17-gene expression signature that distinguishes lymphangiogenic from non-lymphangiogenic NSCLC cell lines. Importantly, VEGF-C is the only lymphatic growth factor in this expression signature and is approximately 50-fold higher in the lymphangiogenic group than in the non-lymphangiogenic group. We show that forced expression of VEGF-C by H1975 cells induces lymphangiogenesis and that knockdown of VEGF-C in H1993 cells inhibits lymphangiogenesis. Additionally, we demonstrate that the triple angiokinase inhibitor, nintedanib (small molecule that blocks all FGFRs, PDGFRs, and VEGFRs), suppresses tumor lymphangiogenesis in H1993 tumors. Together, these data suggest that VEGF-C is the dominant driver of tumor lymphangiogenesis in NSCLC and reveal a specific therapy that could potentially block tumor lymphangiogenesis in NSCLC patients.
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