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Effect of galectin-3 on vasculogenic mimicry in esophageal cancer cells

  • Authors:
    • Jingxin Zhang
    • Guodong Deng
    • Lili Qiao
    • Hui Luo
    • Qiqi Liu
    • Ning Liang
    • Jian Xie
    • Jiandong Zhang
  • View Affiliations

  • Published online on: February 6, 2018
  • Pages:4907-4911
  • Copyright: © Zhang et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Galectin-3 is a multifunctional β-galactoside binding lectin associated with tumor progression. Previous studies confirmed the roles of galecin‑3 overexpression and silencing in the biological behavior of Eca109 human esophageal cancer (EC) cells; galectin‑3 may serve a critical role in the vasculogenic mimicry (VM) of tumors. Therefore, the present study examined the effects of galectin‑3 knockdown using lentivirus vectors on VM in EC. Eca109 and EC9706 EC cells were transfected with a lentiviral vector to inhibit galectin‑3 expression, or a control vector. VM formation in vitro was evaluated via 3D culture. Western blotting was used to detect the expression level of galectin‑3 following galectin‑3 silencing and the expression levels of VE‑cadherin, ephrin type‑A receptor 2 precursor (EphA2) and matrix metalloproteinase 2 (MMP‑2). According to the results of western blot analysis, the Eca109/galectin‑3 and EC9706/galectin‑3 cells exhibited effective galectin‑3 silencing (P<0.05). Eca109 and EC9706 cells formed typical tubular networks; the number of tubular networks markedly decreased subsequent to galectin‑3 knockdown. The expression levels of MMP‑2 and EphA2 proteins in Eca109/galectin‑3 and EC9706/galectin‑3 cells were lower compared with those in Eca109, EC9706, and control vector‑transfected Eca109 and EC9706 cells (P<0.05); however, there was no significant difference in the expression of VE‑cadherin proteins. These results indicated that galectin‑3 may modulate VM in EC by regulating the EphA2 expression level, which affects VM formation via MMP-2.


Esophageal cancer (EC) is an aggressive type of malignant tumor with a high mortality rate on account of its early metastasis and the high likelihood of post-operative recurrence (1). According to a report by the Esophageal Cancer Collaboration, the depth of tumor invasion, regional lymph node metastasis and distant metastasis are associated with decreased patient survival time (1). Although early EC diagnosis and treatment are improving, the prognosis for EC with extensive invasion and metastasis remains poor (2,3).

Galectin-3 is one of the best-characterized galectins; it binds to specific glycans, thereby deciphering the information of the glycome, and is the only chimera galectin identified in vertebrates (4,5). Studies have revealed that galectin-3 is highly expressed in various types of malignant tumor during tumor development and metastasis, including melanoma (6), thyroid carcinomas (7) and clear-cell renal cell carcinoma (8). To the best of our knowledge, our previous study was the first to demonstrate that galectin-3 is overexpressed in EC cells and the blood (9). The study also revealed that an increased galectin-3 expression level significantly promoted proliferation, migration, invasion and apoptosis inhibition in EC cells (9). Conversely, the downregulation of galectin-3 may inhibit cancer cell proliferation, migration, invasion and apoptosis (10). This implies an important role for galectin-3 in the development of EC; however, the mechanism for this has yet to be fully characterized.

Vasculogenic mimicry (VM) refers to tumor cells directly interconnecting to form channels similar to blood vessels in order to transport blood, which was first identified in melanoma in 1999 (11). A number of previous studies have demonstrated the presence of VM in various types of malignant tumor, including melanoma, osteosarcoma, and ovarian, breast, prostate, bladder, colorectal, gastric, lung and hepatocellular cancer (12,13). At present, available molecularly targeted antitumor drugs predominantly target endothelium-dependent vascularization, and will not affect VM. Therefore, it is necessary to research antitumor therapies against VM.

A previous study has identified that galectin-3 serves a critical role in the formation of VM by tumors (14). During melanoma progression, galectin-3 accumulates in the cytoplasm of tumor cells and stimulates the invasiveness of tumor cells, resulting in tube formation and tumor metastasis. Following galectin-3-silencing with short hairpin RNA in vitro, tumor cells may exhibit reduced invasiveness and lose tube formation ability (14). It was previously demonstrated that galectin-3 may regulate the expression levels of various genes, including vascular endothelial cadherin (VE-cadherin) and matrix metalloproteinase (MMP-2), which are associated with VM (15).

Therefore, the present study examined the effects of galectin-3 knockdown using lentivirus vectors on VM in EC. The functional significance of galectin-3 with regard to VM formation and cell migration and invasion in vitro was examined. The results of the present study may provide alternative targets for therapeutic intervention.

Materials and methods

Cell culture

The Eca109 and EC9706 human EC cell lines were obtained from the Shandong Academy of Medical Sciences (Jinan, China). All cells were cultured at 37°C in tissue culture flasks (Corning Incorporated, Corning, NY, USA) and were incubated in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium supplemented with 10% heat-inactivated fetal bovine serum (both Gibco; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc., Waltham, MA, USA) and 1% penicillin-streptomycin (HyClone; GE Healthcare, Chicago, IL, USA) in a humidified incubator containing 95% air and 5% CO2.

Galectin-3 lentiviral vector interference

The following galectin-3 gene sequence, 5′-CAGGAGAGTCATTGTTTGCAA-3′, with a G/C content of 42.1%, was obtained from GenBank (; accession no. NM_002306). The lentiviral vectors were designed and synthesized by Shanghai Genechem Co., Ltd. (Shanghai, China) as viral vectors for inhibiting galectin-3 expression in Eca109 and EC9706 cells. The sequences of the three viral vector frames were as follows: LGALS3-RNAi (33755–1), 5′-CACGCTTCAATGAGAACAA; LGALS3-RNAi (33756–2), 5′-CGGTGAAGCCCAATGCAAA; LGALS3-RNAi (33757–1), 5′-CTGGAAACCCAAACCCTCA. Eca-109 and EC9706 cells were transfected with the lentiviral vector with HifectGen transfection reagent (Shanghai Genechem Co., Ltd.) according to the manufacturer's protocol. Preliminary transfection experiments were conducted to confirm the optimal concentration of lentivirus required. At 80% confluence, the Eca-109 and EC9706 cells were released into a single cell suspension by digestion with trypsin-EDTA (Beyotime Institute of Biotechnology, Haimen, China) and seeded at 30,000-50,000 cells/ml in 6-well tissue culture plates (Corning Incorporated). After 24 h, the cells were inoculated with lentivirus and incubated at 37°C in 5% CO2. After 8 h, the transfection medium was replaced with complete growth DMEM (Gibco; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.). Following 3 days, the optimal conditions for transfection were determined according to the intensity of green fluorescent protein (GFP) expression evaluated using an inverted fluorescence microscope (FSX100; Olympus Corporation, Tokyo, Japan). At 70–80% confluence, the cells were digested and passaged into 25 cm2 cell culture flasks in growth medium with complete DMEM/F12 (Gibco; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.) containing 10% fetal bovine serum (Gibco; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.) for expansion. The stability of transfection was determined by the expression of GFP with fluorescence microscopy. LGALS3-RNAi (33755–1) was selected to be the lentiviral vector for inhibiting galectin-3 expression. The stable galectin-3 knockdown cell lines were designated as Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3; virus without anti-Smad was used to transfect Eca-109 and EC9706 cells, serving as negative controls (Eca109/NEO and EC9706/NEO). When the transfection was completed, the subsequent experiments were started immediately.

3D cell culture

VM formation in vitro was evaluated via 3D culture. In the 3D culture assay, Matrigel (300 µl/well) was thawed at 4°C, added to 24-well plates on ice and incubated at 37°C for 30 min. Eca109 or EC9706 cells (5×105/ml) were then seeded onto the gels and incubated at 37°C in 5% CO2 for 24 h. The formation of capillary-like structures was observed under a phase-contrast microscope (magnification, ×100). Each experiment was performed in triplicate.

Western blot analysis

A total of six groups of cells (Eca109, EC9706, Eca109/NEO, EC9706/NEO, Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3) were harvested at 72 h after transfection. Total protein was extracted from cells using radioimmunoprecipitation assay lysis solution (Sigma-Aldrich; Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany), then centrifuged at 12,000 × g for 30 min at 4°C. The supernatant was collected and protein concentrations were determined using a Bicinchoninic Acid Protein assay kit (Pierce; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.). Protein (30 µg) was loaded into each lane and separated by 10% SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis at 25 mA for 90 min. The protein was transferred to a polyvinylidene membrane (EMD Millipore, Billerica, MA, USA), which was blocked with 5% skimmed milk in TBS [100 mmol/l Tris-HCl (pH 7.5), 150 mmol/l NaCl] at 37°C for 1 h. Subsequently, the membrane was incubated with the primary antibodies, including galectin-3 (cat. no. ab2785; 1:1,000; Abcam, Cambridge, UK), Ephrin type-A receptor 2 precursor (EphA2; cat. no. ab5387; 1:500; Abcam), VE-cadherin (cat. no. ab166715; 1:500; Abcam), MMP-2 (cat. no. ab37150; 1:2,000; Abcam) and GAPDH (cat. no. ab8245; 1:3,000; Abcam), overnight at 4°C, and then respectively incubated with goat anti-rat immunoglobulin G conjugated to peroxidase (1:500; Sigma-Aldrich; Merck KGaA) and goat anti-rabbit immunoglobulin G conjugated to peroxidase (1:500; Sigma-Aldrich; Merck KGaA) for 1 h at 37°C. A FluorChem E instrument (Cell Biosciences, Inc., Santa Clara, CA, USA) was utilized to capture enhanced chemiluminescence images. Quantification of the band intensity relative to GADPH was performed using ImageJ software (version 1.62; National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA).

Statistical analysis

All data analysis was performed using SPSS software (version 13.0; SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA). All values are expressed as the mean ± standard deviation. Unpaired Student's t-tests were performed for comparisons between values. P<0.05 was considered to indicate a statistically significant difference.


Lentivirus transfection efficiency of Eca109 and EC9706 cells

The GFP expression level was observed under a fluorescence microscope to determine the stability of transfection. As presented in Figs. 1A and 2A, there was no significant difference in the fluorescence density between the control and silenced groups following transfection with the lentiviruses, which suggested that the transfection efficiency was comparable between groups. The overall transfection efficiency was >95%.

Detection of galectin-3 protein expression following galectin-3 silencing

Following transfection with the lentiviruses, the galectin-3 protein expression level in the Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells was reduced significantly compared with the control cells, including Eca109, EC9706, Eca109/NEO and EC9706/NEO (P<0.05; Figs. 1B and 2B); however, there was no significant difference in the galectin-3 protein expression levels between the Eca109 and Eca109/NEO or EC9706 and EC9706/NEO cells (Figs. 1B and 2B). According to the results of western blot analysis, the Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells exhibited effective galectin-3 silencing (P<0.05).

Silencing of galectin-3 expression inhibits VM formation and the expression of VM-associated genes in vitro

Eca109 and EC9706 cells interacted with one another on the Matrigel and formed a vascular network structure. Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells exhibited decreased channel-forming abilities in vitro. The number of tubular structures formed by the Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells was markedly lower than in the four control groups, and the rate of the appearance of fractured cyclic structures in the Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells was increased (Fig. 3).

The expression level of MMP-2 and EphA2 protein in Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells was significantly lower compared with in the control cells (P<0.05; Fig. 4); however, there was no significant difference in the protein expression level of VE-cadherin proteins in Eca109/galectin-3 and EC9706/galectin-3 cells compared with the control cells (Fig. 4).


Galectin-3 is widely expressed in normal cells and tumor cells, which is associated with cell growth, adhesion, differentiation and death. Its expression may be elevated in gastric cancer, colon cancer and other types of malignant tumor (6,8,1620). In our previous study, it was demonstrated that the overexpression of galectin-3 enhanced the aggression-associated behaviors of Eca109 cells, including increased proliferation, migration and invasion, and reduced apoptosis (9). Subsequently, the galectin-3 gene was silenced in Eca109 cells, which caused a reduction in cell proliferation, migration and invasion, and an increase in apoptosis (10). This indicated that galectin-3 may be implicated in the development of EC, and that galectin-3 silencing may be a potential treatment strategy for EC.

It was previously demonstrated that galectin-3 regulated a broad range of cancer cell activities, including significant effects on cancer cell growth and transformation, apoptosis, angiogenesis, adhesion, invasion and metastasis (21). Tumor metastasis and blood transport in tumors may be performed by VM instead of typical blood vessels, allowing the transport of oxygen and nutrients to allow the growth of tumor cells (22). Therefore, we hypothesized that VM may be associated with galectin-3 expressions.

A previous study demonstrated that the presence of VM was associated with the expression levels of MMP-2, EphA2 and VE-cadherin (23). VE-cadherin may interact with EphA2, and EphA2 phosphorylation may activate phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase, which promotes VM formation via activating MMP-2 and the laminin Ln-5γ2 chain (15). It was previously revealed that the silencing of VE-cadherin resulted in a marked redistribution of EphA2 on the cell surface; however, VE-cadherin expression level was unaltered following the silencing of EphA2 (24), indicating that VE-cadherin regulates EphA2. Accordingly, a significant decrease in the expression level of VE-cadherin was not identified in the present study, although there was a decrease in the EphA2 and MMP-2 expression level in Eca109 and EC9706 cells following galectin-3 silencing. Therefore, the present study demonstrated that galectin-3 regulated the expression of EphA2 and may, similar to VE-cadherin, serve a central role in the mechanism underlying VM in human esophageal Eca109 and EC9706 cells in vitro.

In conclusion, the present study identified that EphA2 function can be regulated by galectin-3, and that this may serve a role in mediating VM, similar to VE-cadherin. These results may provide novel insights for therapeutic interventions against tumor-associated vasculature. Further studies should verify whether the induced overexpression of galectin-3 in esophageal cells promotes the formation of VM, and whether the overexpression of galectin-3 affects EphA2 expression.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.



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April 2018
Volume 15 Issue 4

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Zhang, J., Deng, G., Qiao, L., Luo, H., Liu, Q., Liang, N. ... Zhang, J. (2018). Effect of galectin-3 on vasculogenic mimicry in esophageal cancer cells. Oncology Letters, 15, 4907-4911.
Zhang, J., Deng, G., Qiao, L., Luo, H., Liu, Q., Liang, N., Xie, J., Zhang, J."Effect of galectin-3 on vasculogenic mimicry in esophageal cancer cells". Oncology Letters 15.4 (2018): 4907-4911.
Zhang, J., Deng, G., Qiao, L., Luo, H., Liu, Q., Liang, N., Xie, J., Zhang, J."Effect of galectin-3 on vasculogenic mimicry in esophageal cancer cells". Oncology Letters 15, no. 4 (2018): 4907-4911.