Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is etiologically associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection. However, the exact role of EBV in NPC pathogenesis remains elusive. Activation of signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) is common in human cancers including NPC and plays an important role in the pathogenesis and progression of human cancers. Interleukin-6 (IL-6), a major inflammatory cytokine, is a potent activator of STAT3. In this study, we report that EBV-infected immortalized nasopharyngeal epithelial (NPE) cells often acquire an enhanced response to IL-6-induced STAT3 activation to promote their growth and invasive properties. Interestingly, this enhanced IL-6/STAT3 response was mediated by overexpression of IL-6 receptor (IL-6R). Furthermore, IL-6R overexpression enhanced IL-6-induced STAT3 activation in uninfected immortalized NPE cells in vitro, and promoted growth and tumorigenicity of EBV-positive NPC cell line (C666-1) in vivo. Moreover, it is shown for the first time that IL-6R was overexpressed in clinical specimens of NPC. IL-6 expression could also be strongly detected in the stromal cells of NPC and a higher circulating level of IL-6 was found in the sera of advance-staged NPC patients compared to the control subjects. Therefore, IL-6R overexpression, coupled with enhanced IL-6/STAT3 signaling may facilitate the malignant transformation of EBV-infected premalignant NPE cells into cancer cells, and enhance malignant properties of NPC cells.
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