Rapidly growing tumors often experience hypoxia and nutrient (e.g., glucose) deficiency because of poor vascularization. Tumor cells respond to the cytotoxic effects of such stresses by inducing molecular adaptations that promote clonal selection of a more malignant tumor-initiating cell phenotype, especially in the innermost tumor regions. Here, we report a regulatory mechanism involving fucosylation by which glucose restriction promotes cancer stemness to drive drug resistance and tumor recurrence. Using hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) as a model, we showed that restricted glucose availability enhanced the PERK/eIF2α/ATF4 signaling axis to drive fucosyltransferase 1 (FUT1) transcription via direct binding of ATF4 to the FUT1 promoter. FUT1 overexpression is a poor prognostic indicator for HCC. FUT1 inhibition could mitigate tumor initiation, self-renewal, and drug resistance. Mechanistically, we demonstrated that CD147, ICAM-1, EGFR, and EPHA2 are glycoprotein targets of FUT1, in which such fucosylation would consequently converge on deregulated AKT/mTOR/4EBP1 signaling to drive cancer stemness. Treatment with an α-(1,2)-fucosylation inhibitor sensitized HCC tumors to sorafenib, a first-line molecularly targeted drug used for advanced HCC patients, and reduced the tumor-initiating subset. FUT1 overexpression and/or CD147, ICAM-1, EGFR, and EPHA2 fucosylation may be good prognostic markers and therapeutic targets for cancer patients.
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