Objective: Apurinic/apyrimidinic endonuclease 1 (APEX1), a key enzyme responsible for DNA base excision repair, has been linked to development and progression of cancers. In this work, we aimed to explore the role of APEX1 in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and elucidate its molecular mechanism.

Methods: The expression of APEX1 in HCC tissues and matched adjacent normal tissues (n = 80 cases) was evaluated by immunohistochemistry. Web-based tools UALCAN and the Kaplan-Meier plotter were used to analyze the Cancer Genome Atlas database to compare expression of APEX1 mRNA to 5-year overall survival. APEX1 was stably silenced in two HCC cell lines, Hep 3B and Bel-7402, with shRNA technology. An in vivo tumorigenesis model was established by subcutaneously injecting sh-APEX1-transfected Bel-7402 cells into mice, and tumor growth was determined. We performed high-throughput transcriptome sequencing in sh-APEX1-treated HCC cells to identify the key KEGG signaling pathways induced by silencing of APEX1.

Results: APEX1 was significantly upregulated and predicted poor clinical overall survival in HCC patients. Silencing APEX1 inhibited the proliferation of HCC cells in vivo and in vitro, and it repressed invasion and migration and increased apoptosis and the percentage of cells in G1. Differentially expressed genes upon APEX1 silencing included genes involved in TNF signaling. A positive correlation between the expression of APEX1 and MAP2K6 was noted, and overexpressing MAP2K6 overcame cancer-related phenotypes associated with APEX1 silencing.

Conclusion: APEX1 enhances the malignant properties of HCC via MAP2K6. APEX1 may represent a valuable prognostic biomarker and therapeutic target in HCC.