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OBJECTIVE: Sorafenib is effective in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), but patients ultimately present disease progression. Molecular mechanisms underlying acquired resistance are still unknown. Herein, we characterize the role of tumor-initiating cells (T-ICs) and signaling pathways involved in sorafenib resistance. DESIGN: HCC xenograft mice treated with sorafenib (n=22) were explored for responsiveness (n=5) and acquired resistance (n=17). Mechanism of acquired resistance were assessed by: 1) Role of T-ICs by in vitro sphere formation and in vivo tumorigenesis assays using NOD/SCID mice, 2) Activation of alternative signaling pathways and 3) Efficacy of anti-FGF and anti-IGF drugs in experimental models. Gene expression (microarray, qRT-PCR) and protein analyses (immunohistochemistry, western blot) were conducted. A novel gene signature of sorafenib resistance was generated and tested in 2 independent cohorts. RESULTS: Sorafenib-acquired resistance tumors showed significant enrichment of T-ICs (164 cells needed to create a tumor) vs. sorafenib-sensitive tumors (13400 cells) and non-treated tumors (1292 cells), p<0.001. Tumors with sorafenib-acquired resistance were enriched with IGF and FGF signaling cascades (FDR<0.05). In vitro, cells derived from sorafenib-acquired resistant tumors and two sorafenib-resistant HCC cell lines were responsive to IGF or FGF inhibition. In vivo, FGF blockade delayed tumor growth and improved survival in sorafenib-resistant tumors. A sorafenib-resistance 175-gene signature was characterized by enrichment of progenitor-cell features, aggressive tumoral traits and predicted poor survival in 2 cohorts (n=442 HCC patients). CONCLUSION: Acquired resistance to sorafenib is driven by tumor initiating cells with enrichment of progenitor markers and activation of IGF and FGF signaling. Inhibition of these pathways would benefit a subset of patients after sorafenib progression. Transcriptomic profile of subcutaneous Huh7 cells-derived tumors treated with sorafenib that developed acquired resistance to the drug (n=4), remain responsive to sorafenib (n=3) or were treated with brivanib after development of resistance (n=3). Gene profiling of hepatospheres generated from tumors with acquired resistance to sorafenib (n=3) and non-treated tumors (n=3) was also analyzed.

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