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Molecular oncology

Conversion to stem-cell state in response to microenvironmental cues is regulated by balance between epithelial and mesenchymal features in lung cancer cells.


PMID 26514616

Abstract

Cancer cells within a tumor are functionally heterogeneous and specific subpopulations, defined as cancer initiating cells (CICs), are endowed with higher tumor forming potential. The CIC state, however, is not hierarchically stable and conversion of non-CICs to CICs under microenvironment signals might represent a determinant of tumor aggressiveness. How plasticity is regulated at the cellular level is however poorly understood. To identify determinants of plasticity in lung cancer we exposed eight different cell lines to TGFβ1 to induce EMT and stimulate modulation of CD133(+)xa0CICs. We show that response to TGFβ1 treatment is heterogeneous with some cells readily switching to stem cell state (1.5-2 fold CICs increase) and others being unresponsive to stimulation. This response is unrelated to original CICs content or extent of EMT engagement but is tightly dependent on balance between epithelial and mesenchymal features as measured by the ratio of expression of CDH1 (E-cadherin) to SNAI2. Epigenetic modulation of this balance can restore sensitivity of unresponsive models to microenvironmental stimuli, including those elicited by cancer-associated fibroblasts both inxa0vitro and inxa0vivo. In particular, tumors with increased prevalence of cells with features of partial EMT (hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal phenotype) are endowed with the highest plasticity and specific patterns of expression of SNAI2 and CDH1 markers identify a subset of tumors with worse prognosis. In conclusion, here we describe a connection between a hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal phenotype and conversion to stem-cell state in response to external stimuli. These findings have implications for current endeavors to identify tumors with increased plasticity.

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