Background: The chemokine CXCL12 and its corresponding receptor CXCR4 are key players in the development of several cancers. Therefore, we hypothesized that there is a functional causality between CXCL12 expression and tumor progression in patients with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). Methods: We performed an immunohistochemical analysis in 79 consecutive patients with ESCC. We performed in vitro and in vivo cell proliferation assays using ESCC cell lines and a newly established transfectant stably overexpressing CXCL12. Results: Immunohistochemistry revealed positive CXCR4 and CXCL12 expression in 48 (61 %) and 62 (78 %) patients, respectively. Additionally, the expression levels did not significantly correlate with any clinicopathological factors. The MIB-1 proliferation index was markedly higher in ESCC with a positive expression of CXCR4 or CXCL12. Positive CXCL12 expression was significantly correlated with lower recurrence-free survival (RFS, p = 0.02). Cox's hazard models revealed CXCL12 expression as an independent predictive factor for recurrence. In vitro, CXCL12 exposure or overexpression enhanced ESCC proliferation; and AMD3100, a specific inhibitor of CXCR4, equally decreased proliferation irrespective of CXCL12 exposure or overexpression. In the mouse model, AMD3100 significantly decreased ESCC tumor size (p = 0.03). Conclusions: CXCL12 stimulates ESCC proliferation, and its expression levels are related to lower RFS in patients with ESCC. Our findings indicate that positive CXCL12 expression may be a useful marker for predicting the outcome in patients with ESCC and is a potentially new therapeutic target for ESCC.
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