The recent classification of colon cancer into molecular subtypes revealed that patients with the poorest prognosis harbor tumors with the lowest levels of Wnt signaling. This is contrary to the general understanding that overactive Wnt signaling promotes tumor progression from early initiation stages through to the later stages including invasion and metastasis. Here, we directly test this assumption by reducing the activity of ß-catenin–dependent Wnt signaling in colon cancer cell lines at either an upstream or downstream step in the pathway. We determine that Wnt-reduced cancer cells exhibit a more aggressive disease phenotype, including increased mobility in vitro and disruptive invasion into mucosa and smooth muscle in an orthotopic mouse model. RNA sequencing reveals that interference with Wnt signaling leads to an upregulation of gene programs that favor cell migration and invasion and a downregulation of inflammation signatures in the tumor microenvironment. We identify a set of upregulated genes common among the Wnt perturbations that are predictive of poor patient outcomes in early-invasive colon cancer. Our findings suggest that while targeting Wnt signaling may reduce tumor burden, an inadvertent side effect is the emergence of invasive cancer.

Implications:

Decreased Wnt signaling in colon tumors leads to a more aggressive disease phenotype due to an upregulation of gene programs favoring cell migration in the tumor and downregulation of inflammation programs in the tumor microenvironment; these impacts must be carefully considered in developing Wnt-targeting therapies.

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