Emerging evidence suggests that circular RNAs (circRNAs) play critical roles in tumorigenesis. However, the roles and molecular mechanisms of circRNA leucine-rich repeat immunoglobulin domain-containing protein 3 (circ_LRIG3) in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) has not been investigated.

Material and methods:
The expression levels of circ_LRIG3, miR-223-3p, and mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 6 (MAP2K6) were determined by qRT-PCR. Flow cytometry was applied to determine the cell cycle distribution and apoptosis. Cell proliferation, migration and invasion were assessed by MTT, colony formation, and transwell assays. Western blot assay was employed to measure the protein levels of the snail, E-cadherin, MAP2K6, mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), phospho-MAPK (p-MAPK), extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs), and phospho-ERKs (p- ERKs). The relationship between miR-223-3p and circ_LRIG3 or MAP2K6 was predicted by bioinformatics tools and verified by dual-luciferase reporter assay. A xenograft tumor model was established to confirm the functions of circ_LRIG3 in vivo.

Circ_LRIG3 and MAP2K6 expression were enhanced while miR-223-3p abundance was reduced in HCC tissues and cells. Knockdown of circ_LRIG3 inhibited cell proliferation, metastasis, and increasing apoptosis. MiR-223-3p was a target of circ_LRIG3, and its downregulation reversed the inhibitory effect of circ_LRIG3 knockdown on the progression of HCC cells. Moreover, MAP2K6 could bind to miR-223-3p, and MAP2K6 upregulation also abolished the suppressive impact of circ_LRIG3 interference on progression of HCC cells. Additionally, the silence of circ_LRIG3 suppressed the activation of the MAPK/ERK pathway and tumor growth by upregulating miR-223-3p and downregulating MAP2K6.

Circ_LRIG3 knockdown inhibited HCC progression through regulating miR-223-3p/MAP2K6 axis and inactivating MAPK/ERK pathway.