Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a major cause of cancer-related death in Southeast Asia, is frequently associated with hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. HBV X protein (HBx), encoded by a viral non-structural gene, is a multifunctional regulator in HBV-associated tumor development. We investigated novel signaling pathways underlying HBx-induced liver tumorigenesis and found that the signaling pathway involving IκB kinase β (IKKβ), tuberous sclerosis complex 1 (TSC1), and mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) downstream effector S6 kinase (S6K1), was upregulated when HBx was overexpressed in hepatoma cells. HBx-induced S6K1 activation was reversed by IKKβ inhibitor Bay 11-7082 or silencing IKKβ expression using siRNA. HBx upregulated cell proliferation and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) production, and these HBx-upregulated phenotypes were abolished by treatment with IKKβ inhibitor Bay 11-7082 or mTOR inhibitor rapamycin. The association of HBx-modulated IKKβ/mTOR/S6K1 signaling with liver tumorigenesis was verified in a HBx transgenic mouse model in which pIKKβ, pS6K1, and VEGF expression was found to be higher in cancerous than non-cancerous liver tissues. Furthermore, we also found that pIKKβ levels were strongly correlated with pTSC1 and pS6K1 levels in HBV-associated hepatoma tissue specimens taken from 95 patients, and that higher pIKKβ, pTSC1, and pS6K1 levels were correlated with a poor prognosis in these patients. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that HBx deregulates TSC1/mTOR signaling through IKKβ, which is crucially linked to HBV-associated HCC development.
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