BackgroundThe hsa_circ_0004771 derived from NRIP1 (called circ_NRIP1) is a recently identified oncogenic circRNA. Here, we intended to investigate the role and mechanism of circ_NRIP1 in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC), a prevalent and aggressive type of esophageal cancer.MethodsExpression of circ_NRIP1, miRNA-595-5p (miR-595) and semaphorin 4D (SEMA4D) was detected by RT-qPCR and western blotting. Cell growth was assessed by colony formation assay, MTS assay, flow cytometry, and xenograft experiment; migration and invasion were evaluated by transwell assay and western blotting. Dual-luciferase reporter assay identified the relationship among circ_NRIP1, miR-595 and SEMA4D. Western blotting measured phosphatidylinositol-3-hydroxykinase (PI3K)/AKT pathway-related proteins.ResultsExpression of circ_NRIP1 was upregulated in ESCC tissues and cells. Knockdown of circ_NRIP1 could enhance apoptosis rate and E-cadherin expression, but suppress colony formation, cell viability, migration, invasion, and snail expression in KYSE30 and KYSE450 cells, as well as retarded tumor growth in mice. The suppressive role of circ_NRIP1 knockdown in cell growth, migration and invasion in vitro was abated by blocking miR-595; meanwhile, miR-595 overexpression elicited similar anti-tumor role in KYSE30 and KYSE450 cells, which was abrogated by restoring SEMA4D. Notably, circ_NRIP1 was a sponge for miR-595, and SEMA4D was a target of miR-595. Besides, PI3K/AKT signal was inhibited by circ_NRIP1 knockdown and/or miR-595 overexpression via indirectly or directly regulating SEMA4D.Conclusioncirc_NRIP1 functioned as an oncogene in ESCC, and modulated ESCC cell growth, migration and invasion both in vitro and in vivo via targeting miR-595/SEMA4D axis and inhibiting PI3K/AKT signaling pathway.