The ability to penetrate the dermal basement membrane and subsequently proliferate in the underlying mesenchyme is one of the key steps in malignant progression of human melanomas. We previously undertook studies aimed at assessing how normal dermal fibroblasts (one of the main cellular components of mesenchyme) may affect the growth of human melanoma cells and facilitate the overgrowth of malignant subpopulations (Cornil, I., D. Theodorescu, S. Man, M. Herlyn, J. Jambrosic, and R. S. Kerbel. 1991. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 88:6028-6032). We found that melanoma cell lines from early-stage (metastatically incompetent) lesions were growth inhibited whereas those from advanced-stage (metastatically competent) lesions were stimulated under the same conditions by co-culture with fibroblasts; conditioned medium from such cells gave the same result. Subsequent studies using biochemical purification and neutralizing antibodies revealed the inhibitory activity to be identical to interleukin-6 (IL-6). We now report that addition of purified recombinant human IL-6 resulted in a growth inhibition in vitro by G1/G0 arrest of early, but not advanced stage melanoma cells. Despite this alteration in response there was no significant difference in melanoma cell lines of varying malignancy in respect to their expression of genes encoding the IL-6 receptor, or gp130, the IL-6 signal transducer. Scatchard analysis also revealed similar [125I]IL-6 binding activities in both IL-6 sensitive and resistant groups. However, studies of IL-6 production indicated that five out eight IL-6 melanoma cell lines known to be resistant to exogenous IL-6-mediated growth inhibition constitutively expressed mRNA for IL-6; they also secreted bioactive IL-6 into culture medium. To assess the possible role of this endogenous IL-6 in melanoma cell growth, antisense oligonucleotides to the IL-6 gene were added to cultures of melanoma cells. This resulted in a significant growth inhibition only in cell lines that produced endogenous IL-6. In contrast, neutralizing antibodies to IL-6 were ineffective in causing such growth inhibition. This indicates that endogenous IL-6 may behave as a growth stimulator by an intracellular ("private") autocrine mechanism. Thus, a single cytokine, IL-6, can switch from behaving as a paracrine growth inhibitor to an autocrine growth stimulator within the same cell lineage during malignant tumor progression. Such a switch may contribute to the growth advantage of metastatically competent melanoma cells at the primary or distant organ sites and thereby facilitate progression of disease.

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