Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) is a surface marker which is frequently overexpressed in hepato-cellular carcinoma (HCC) but minimally expressed on mature hepatocytes. We developed a specific aptamer against EpCAM (EpCAM-apt) and tested its potential as a drug delivery agent for HCC. The targeting ability of EpCAM-apt was confirmed in vitro and in vivo after which the complex was conjugated with doxorubicin (Dox) to form EpCAM-apt-Dox. The targeting efficacy of the drug-loaded complex against liver cancer stem-like cells (LCSCs) and therapeutic effects in HCC were evaluated. EpCAM-expressing (EpCAM(+)) HCC cells showed char-acteristics of stem like cells including greater proliferative capacity and tumour sphere formation. EpCAM-apt-Dox selectively delivered Dox to EpCAM(+) HCC cells with high drug retention and accumulation versus con-trol. EpCAM-apt-Dox reduced the self-renewal capacity and stem-like cell frequency in vitro. Elimination of cancer stem-like cells (CSCs) with EpCAM-apt-Dox significantly inhibited the growth of HCC cells and patient-derived HCC organoids but exerted minimal cytotoxicity to normal liver organoids. Moreover, EpCAM-apt-Dox suppressed the growth of xenograft tumours derived from HCC organoids in vivo and prolonged mouse survival without inducing adverse effects to major organs. Thus, aptamer-based drug delivery to the stem-like cell population is a promising strategy for HCC treatment.
- cancer stem-like cells (CSCs)