Posts Tagged ‘liver cancer’

Marcela’s Story:  A Liver Transplant Gives the Gift of Life

Patient is HCV Positive, liver transplanted from a 22-year-old donor performed at age 70. Interview conducted 14 years post-liver transplant.

Author: Gail S. Thornton, M.A.

Co-Editor: The VOICES of Patients, HealthCare Providers, Caregivers and Families: Personal Experience with Critical Care and Invasive Medical Procedures

For Marcela Almada Calles of Valle de Bravo, Mexico, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Avándaro about two hours outside of Mexico City where she has lived for 30 years, life is about seizing the moment and having “an open mind and positive attitude.”  An active woman in her 80’s, Marcela’s days are full of professional and personal achievements and a long list of activities still to accomplish. However, life wasn’t always so positive as she put her life on hold for two-and-a-half years to relocate to Los Angeles, California, so that she could have a liver transplant.

“My spirit and attitude have always been what has carried me through life and difficult situations. This time was no different.”

Image SOURCE: Photographs courtesy of Marcela Almada Calles.   

Marcela’s story started 20 years ago during a time when she operated a successful event planning and catering business for high-profile government and social dignitaries, pharmaceutical companies, and luxury department stores.

“I normally worked long hours from early morning until evening, until one day, I felt exceptionally tired and it became a huge effort to concentrate. My ankles were swollen and I was out of breath all the time and my skin was yellow. I felt sleepy and would sometimes become tired during the day. This was unusual for me. I knew something was not right.”

At that point, Marcela decided to make an appointment with her local physician and friend, Dr. Sergio Ulloa, a highly regarded rheumatologist and corporate and government affairs leader in Mexico, who examined her and took several blood tests. When the blood results came back, Dr. Ulloa immediately referred her to Dr. Sergio Kershenovich, a well-regarded hepatologist, at his private clinic, who checked her for symptoms of Hepatitis C. After that Marcela decided to get another opinion and went to see Dr. Fernando Quijano, a general surgeon, who immediately wanted her to have surgery because he had found a cancerous tumor in her liver.

“My doctors’ opinions were that I needed to have a liver transplant immediately because I was in liver failure. It appeared that I had a failing liver — and a tumor there as well and my liver was not working properly.”

Relocating Life to the United States

At that point, my six children – Marcela, Luis, Diego, Rodolfo, Gabriela, Mario — who live in parts of Mexico and Singapore became involved in my health care decisions and treatment plan.

“My son, Luis, believed the best treatment for me was to see a liver specialist in the United States so that I received the best care from a leading liver transplantation hospital. He made some connections with friends and that next day, Dr. Francisco Durazo, chief of Transplant Hepatology and medical director of the Dumont UCLA Liver Transplant Center in Los Angeles, told me to come immediately to see him. I remember my children were supportive and concerned, but were afraid for me as we all knew that I had a long road ahead of me.”

At that time, she was put on a national liver transplant list by the UCLA Transplant Center.

“What I didn’t know was that more than 9,000 potential recipients are currently awaiting liver transplants.”

“Dr. Durazo was very concerned and told me that my liver was not working at all and I had to have a liver transplant as soon as possible, so he asked me to stay in Los Angeles, since I was now part of a transplant list.”

Evaluation By Transplant Team

Marcela’s case is no different than any other patient awaiting a liver transplant. According to their web site, the UCLA Transplant Center conducts evaluations over two or three days. During this time, the patients meets with a social worker, transplant hepatologist, surgeon, transplant coordinator, psychiatrist and dietitian, as well as other specialists as needed. The evaluation is customized to each patient’s medical condition. Once the evaluation is completed, each patient’s case is presented at a weekly meeting of the UCLA Liver Transplant Consultation Team. This group includes specialists from surgery, adult and pediatric hepatology, cardiology, pulmonary, nephrology, hematology, infectious disease, as well as transplant coordinators and social workers. At this time, the team determines if any other tests are required to ensure the patient’s candidacy for transplant, then the patient and the physician are notified of the recommendation made by the transplant team.

Waiting For Answers

Marcela arrived at UCLA in Los Angeles with her family on Mother’s Day — May 10, 1999 — for what she describes as “the best time in her life to be alive with the help of medicine and technology.” That meant that she needed to rent an apartment and live near the hospital in case the doctors received an anonymous donor who would give her the gift of life.

“I had to wear a beeper 24 hours a day and I was never alone. My children took turns over the next two-and-a-half years to give up their lives with their families to live with me and help me navigate the health care system and my upcoming surgery.”

Marcela filled her days at her new apartment in Los Angeles reading about her condition, meditating to quiet her mind, watching television, and talking with family, friends and neighbors.

“The doctors called me two times over the next few months, saying they had an anonymous liver donor and I needed to come now to the hospital for tests. Unfortunately, those blood tests and other diagnostic tests showed that I was not a good match, so the doctors sent me home. It was a frustrating time because I wanted to have the liver transplant surgery and move on with my life.”

Finally, after waiting eight months for a liver transplant, Marcela’s outlook on life was greatly improved when an anonymous donor gave her the gift of life – a new, healthy liver.

“The donor’s blood type was a match for me. The surgery took eight hours and it was successful. The doctors told me that my immune system might reject my new liver, so I was given a cocktail of medicines, such as anti-rejection drugs, corticosteroids, calcinurin inhibitors, mTOR inhibitors, and antibiotics and watched very closely in the hospital.”

Marcela was then permitted to leave the hospital only a week after her surgery.

“That was the happiest day of my life. My spirits were high and I had a life to live.”

Her children served as her strength.

“My children took turns flying back and forth to Los Angeles to stay with me. They had a long list of instructions from the doctor. I could take some walks and eat small meals for the next few weeks, but I couldn’t exert myself in any way. I developed a cold over the next few weeks, as my immune system was low, so I had to take special care to eat right, get enough sleep and, most of all, relax. My body, spirit and mind had much healing to do.”

For the next 1 ½ years, Los Angeles was my “second” home.

“I needed to remain there after the procedure so my doctors could monitor my progress. During that time, I felt stronger each day. The support of my family was a true blessing for me. They were my eyes and ears – and my greatest advocates. My doctor recommended that I come weekly for check-ups and go through a physical therapy program so that I could regain my liver function and physical strength. I followed all my doctor’s orders.”

Day by day, Marcela believed as if she could conquer the world.

“I decided, one day many months after the surgery, to become ‘irresponsible’ and spent time with a few good friends, Gabriela and Guadalupe, who traveled to see me. For a weekend, we went to Las Vegas to see shows and go to the casinos. I laughed, played and walked all I could. My children didn’t even know what I was up to, but I felt good and wanted to enjoy the world and my new freedom.”

Marcela was able to return home to Valle de Bravo with a fresh perspective, a long list of things to do, and many happy memories.

“Since that time, I have kept myself active and busy; I never let my mind and heart rest. I am also forever grateful to my anonymous liver donor because it is because of a 22-year-old young man who died in an unfortunate automobile accident that I am here today.”

Liver Transplant Facts

The liver is the body’s vital organ that you cannot live without. It serves many critical functions, including metabolism of drugs and toxins, removing degradation products of normal body metabolism and synthesis of many proteins and enzyme, which are necessary for blood to clot. Transplantation is the only cure for liver insufficiency or liver failure because no device or machine reliably performs all the functions of the liver.–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx

According to a hospital transplant web site, overall, outcomes for liver transplantation are very good, but vary significantly depending on the indication for liver transplant as well as factors associated with the donor. Currently, the overall patient survival one year after liver transplant is 88 percent. Patient survival five years after liver transplant is 73 percent. These results vary significantly based on the indication for liver transplantation. The encouraging trend is that over the past 20 years short- and long-term patient survival has continued to improve. With advances in surgical technique, organ preservation, peri-operative care, and immunosuppression, survival will hopefully continue to improve in the future.–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx

Life For Marcela Today

Science is helping rebalance medicine with the most innovative discoveries and new ways of treating illness.

“I am happy to be part of the solution with a happy ending, too.”

Today, Marcela leads a rich and full life.

“It’s been 14 years since my liver transplant. I continue to feel healthy and alive. Nothing will keep me from doing what I want to do.”

Marcela has an active social life. She takes frequent vacations around the world, including a three-month holiday to Asia, where she travels multiple times to Bali, Cambodia, China and Singapore, where her daughter lives. She is an avid golfer and organizes tournaments in many private golf courses. She is learning to speak French, which is an easy transition (she says) from speaking Spanish. She plays cards with a group of friends weekly, sings in a musical group, and takes dance lessons, too. Life is very, very good.

Editor’s note: We would like to thank Gabriela Contreras, a global communications consultant and patient advocate, for the tremendous help and support that she provided in locating and scheduling time to talk with Marcela Almada Calles.

Marcela Almada Calles provided her permission to publish this interview on July 21, 2016.



Other related articles:

Retrieved from

Retrieved from–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx

Retrieved from–procedures/liver-transplantation.aspx

Other related articles were published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal include the following: 


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Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator


Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes and detects early pancreatic cancer

Sonia A. MeloLinda B. LueckeChristoph KahlertAgustin F. FernandezSeth T. GammonJudith Kaye, et al.

Nature (09 July 2015); 523: 177–182

Most cells shed so-called extracellular vesicles or exosomes consisting of proteins and nucleic acids enclosed in phospholipid bilayers. Exosomes derived from cancer cells can be isolated.

Exosomes are lipid-bilayer-enclosed extracellular vesicles that contain proteins and nucleic acids. They are secreted by all cells and circulate in the blood. Specific detection and isolation of cancer-cell-derived exosomes in the circulation is currently lacking. Using mass spectrometry analyses, we identify a cell surface proteoglycan, glypican-1 (GPC1), specifically enriched on cancer-cell-derived exosomes. GPC1+ circulating exosomes (crExos) were monitored and isolated using flow cytometry from the serum of patients and mice with cancer. GPC1+ crExos were detected in the serum of patients with pancreatic cancer with absolute specificity and sensitivity, distinguishing healthy subjects and patients with a benign pancreatic disease from patients with early- and late-stage pancreatic cancer. Levels of GPC1+ crExos correlate with tumour burden and the survival of pre- and post-surgical patients. GPC1+ crExos from patients and from mice with spontaneous pancreatic tumours carry specific KRAS mutations, and reliably detect pancreatic intraepithelial lesions in mice despite negative signals by magnetic resonance imaging. GPC1+ crExos may serve as a potential non-invasive diagnostic and screening tool to detect early stages of pancreatic cancer to facilitate possible curative surgical therapy.

Figure 1: GPC1 is present on cancer exosomes.

GPC1 is present on cancer exosomes.

a, Venn diagram of proteins from NIH/3T3 (blue), MCF10A (red), HDF (green), E10 (yellow) and MDA-MB-231 (purple) exosomes. In total, 48 proteins were exclusively detected in MDA-MB-231 exosomes (n = 3 protein samples,…

Figure 2: GPC1+ crExos are a non-invasive biomarker for pancreatic cancer.

GPC1+ crExos are a non-invasive biomarker for pancreatic cancer.

a, Percentage of GPC1+crExo beads in healthy donors, patients with breast cancer and patients with PDAC (analysis of variance (ANOVA), post-hoc Tamhane T2, ****P < 0.0001). b, Frequency ofKRAS mutation in 47 tumours…

Figure 3: Levels of circulating GPC1+exosomes inform pancreatic cancer resection outcome.

Levels of circulating GPC1+ exosomes inform pancreatic cancer resection outcome.

a, Longitudinal blood collection pre- and post-operatively (day 7). b, Percentage of GPC1+crExo beads from patients with BPD (n = 4), PCPL (n = 4) or PDAC (n = 29) (paired two-tailed Student’s t-test, **P < 0.01, ****P < 0.0001). Data a…

Cancer: Diagnosis by extracellular vesicles

Nature (09 July 2015); 523: 161–162.

The detection of a single molecule anchored to circulating extracellular vesicles allows late-stage pancreatic cancer to be identified from just one drop of a patient’s blood. See Article p.177

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Oxidative stress inhibits distant metastasis by human melanoma cells

Elena PiskounovaMichalis AgathocleousMalea M. MurphyZeping HuSara E. HuddlestunZhiyu Zhao, et al.

Nature 14 Oct 2015

Solid cancer cells commonly enter the blood and disseminate systemically, but are highly inefficient at forming distant metastases for poorly understood reasons. Here we studied human melanomas that differed in their metastasis histories in patients and in their capacity to metastasize in NOD-SCID-Il2rg−/− (NSG) mice. We show that melanomas had high frequencies of cells that formed subcutaneous tumours, but much lower percentages of cells that formed tumours after intravenous or intrasplenic transplantation, particularly among inefficiently metastasizing melanomas. Melanoma cells in the blood and visceral organs experienced oxidative stress not observed in established subcutaneous tumours. Successfully metastasizing melanomas underwent reversible metabolic changes during metastasis that increased their capacity to withstand oxidative stress, including increased dependence on NADPH-generating enzymes in the folate pathway. Antioxidants promoted distant metastasis in NSG mice. Folate pathway inhibition using low-dose methotrexate, ALDH1L2 knockdown, or MTHFD1 knockdown inhibited distant metastasis without significantly affecting the growth of subcutaneous tumours in the same mice. Oxidative stress thus limits distant metastasis by melanoma cells in vivo.

Lymph node-independent liver metastasis in a model of metastatic colorectal cancer

Ida B. EnquistZinaida GoodAdrian M. JubbGermaine FuhXi WangMelissa R. JunttilaErica L. Jackson & Kevin G. Leong

Nature Communications  26 Mar 2014; 3530(5)

Deciphering metastatic routes is critically important as metastasis is a primary cause of cancer mortality. In colorectal cancer (CRC), it is unknown whether liver metastases derive from cancer cells that first colonize intestinal lymph nodes, or whether such metastases can form without prior lymph node involvement. A lack of relevant metastatic CRC models has precluded investigations into metastatic routes. Here we describe a metastatic CRC mouse model and show that liver metastases can manifest without a lymph node metastatic intermediary. Colorectal tumours transplanted onto the colonic mucosa invade and metastasize to specific target organs including the intestinal lymph nodes, liver and lungs. Importantly, this metastatic pattern differs from that observed following caecum implantation, which invariably involves peritoneal carcinomatosis. Anti-angiogenesis inhibits liver metastasis, yet anti-lymphangiogenesis does not impact liver metastasis despite abrogating lymph node metastasis. Our data demonstrate direct hematogenous spread as a dissemination route that contributes to CRC liver malignancy.

Comprehensive models of human primary and metastatic colorectal tumors in immunodeficient and immunocompetent mice by chemokine targeting

Huanhuan Joyce ChenJian SunZhiliang HuangHarry Hou JrMyra ArcillaNikolai RakhilinDaniel J JoeJiahn ChoiPoornima GadamsettyJeff MilsomGovind NandakumarRandy LongmanXi Kathy Zhou, et al.

Nature Biotechnology (2015);  33:656–660

Current orthotopic xenograft models of human colorectal cancer (CRC) require surgery and do not robustly form metastases in the liver, the most common site clinically. CCR9 traffics lymphocytes to intestine and colorectum. We engineered use of the chemokine receptor CCR9 in CRC cell lines and patient-derived cells to create primary gastrointestinal (GI) tumors in immunodeficient mice by tail-vein injection rather than surgery. The tumors metastasize inducibly and robustly to the liver. Metastases have higher DKK4 and NOTCH signaling levels and are more chemoresistant than paired subcutaneous xenografts. Using this approach, we generated 17 chemokine-targeted mouse models (CTMMs) that recapitulate the majority of common human somatic CRC mutations. We also show that primary tumors can be modeled in immunocompetent mice by microinjecting CCR9-expressing cancer cell lines into early-stage mouse blastocysts, which induces central immune tolerance. We expect that CTMMs will facilitate investigation of the biology of CRC metastasis and drug screening.

Induction of the intestinal stem cell signature gene SMOC-2 is required for L1-mediated colon cancer progression

A Shvab, G Haase, A Ben-Shmuel, N Gavert, T Brabletz, S Dedhar and A Ben-Ze’ev

Oncogene , (27 April 2015) |

Overactivation of Wnt-β-catenin signaling, including β-catenin-TCF target gene expression, is a hallmark of colorectal cancer (CRC) development. We identified the immunoglobulin family of cell-adhesion receptors member L1 as a β-catenin-TCF target gene preferentially expressed at the invasive edge of human CRC tissue. L1 can confer enhanced motility and liver metastasis when expressed in CRC cells. This ability of L1-mediated metastasis is exerted by a mechanism involving ezrin and the activation of NF-κB target genes. In this study, we identified the secreted modular calcium-binding matricellular protein-2 (SMOC-2) as a gene activated by L1-ezrin-NF-κB signaling. SMOC-2 is also known as an intestinal stem cell signature gene in mice expressing Lgr5 in cells at the bottom of intestinal crypts. The induction of SMOC-2 expression in L1-expressing CRC cells was necessary for the increase in cell motility, proliferation under stress and liver metastasis conferred by L1. SMOC-2 expression induced a more mesenchymal like phenotype in CRC cells, a decrease in E-cadherin and an increase in Snail by signaling that involves integrin-linked kinase (ILK). SMOC-2 was localized at the bottom of normal human colonic crypts and at increased levels in CRC tissue with preferential expression in invasive areas of the tumor. We found an increase in Lgr5 levels in CRC cells overexpressing L1, p65 or SMOC-2, suggesting that L1-mediated CRC progression involves the acquisition of a stem cell-like phenotype, and that SMOC-2 elevation is necessary for L1-mediated induction of more aggressive/invasive CRC properties.

Global analysis of L1-transcriptomes identified IGFBP-2 as a target of ezrin and NF-κB signaling that promotes colon cancer progression

A Ben-Shmuel, A Shvab, N Gavert, T Brabletz and A Ben-Ze’ev

Oncogene 06 Aug 2012; Oncogene  (04 July 2013); 32: 3220-3230 |

L1, a neuronal cell adhesion receptor of the immunoglobulin-like protein family is expressed in invading colorectal cancer (CRC) cells as a target gene of Wnt/β-catenin signaling. Overexpression of L1 in CRC cells enhances cell motility and proliferation, and confers liver metastasis. We recently identified ezrin and the IκB-NF-κB pathway as essential for the biological properties conferred by L1 in CRC cells. Here, we studied the underlying molecular mechanisms and found that L1 enhances ezrin phosphorylation, via Rho-associated protein kinase (ROCK), and is required for L1–ezrin co-localization at the juxtamembrane domain and for enhancing cell motility. Global transcriptomes from L1-expressing CRC cells were compared with transcriptomes from the same cells expressing small hairpin RNA (shRNA) to ezrin. Among the genes whose expression was elevated by L1 and ezrin we identified insulin-like growth factor-binding protein 2 (IGFBP-2) and showed that its increased expression is mediated by an NF-κB-mediated transactivation of the IGFBP-2 gene promoter. Expression of a constitutively activated mutant ezrin (Ezrin567D) could also increase IGFBP-2 levels in CRC cells. Overexpression of IGFBP-2 in CRC cells lacking L1-enhanced cell proliferation (in the absence of serum), cell motility, tumorigenesis and induced liver metastasis, similar to L1 overexpression. Suppression of endogenous IGFBP-2 in L1-transfected cells inhibited these properties conferred by L1. We detected IGFBP-2 in a unique organization at the bottom of human colonic crypts in normal mucosa and at increased levels throughout human CRC tissue samples co-localizing with the phosphorylated p65 subunit of NF-κB. Finally, we found that IGFBP-2 and L1 can form a molecular complex suggesting that L1-mediated signaling by the L1–ezrin–NF-κB pathway, that induces IGFBP-2 expression, has an important role in CRC progression.


Exosome Scouts Help Tumors Populate Distant Organs

  • Click Image To Enlarge +
    This image shows exosomes (green) that have infiltrated the whole lung. [Ayuko Hoshino, David Lyden, Weill Cornell Medicine

    When certain types of cancer spread, they seem to prefer particular organs in the body, a choosiness that led Stephen Paget to propose the “seed and soil” hypothesis. This hypothesis, now more than 100 years old, suggests that different organs are somehow more receptive to certain types of cancer, just as different soils seem to allow some seeds, but not others, to find purchase.

    While this hypothesis is as expressive as ever, it still lacks detail. It doesn’t suggest what mechanisms might drive organ-specific metastasis, or organotropic metastasis. The hypothesis, however, is being taken farther by researchers based at Weill Cornell Medicine. These researchers suggest that the old seed-and-soil idea, which sounds as haphazard as the dispersal of seeds by uncultivated plants, could be updated to describe a process that is more directed.

    Essentially, a tumor metastasis may proceed the way settlers cultivate new land. First, scouts and pioneers are dispatched to identify fertile spots and develop basic infrastructure. Then, once the ground is prepared, settlers establish new communities.

    In this scenario, the scouts are tumor exosomes. These exosomes are released by tumors in the millions, and they carry samples of the tumors’ proteins and genetic content. They fuse preferentially with cells at specific locations, and they ensure that recipient organs are prepared to host the tumor cells they represent.

    Most important, this updated view of organotropic metastasis includes a mechanism to explain how exosomes are directed to specific organs. The exosomes, it turns out, are outfitted with particular sets of integrins, proteins that serve as a kind of destination label.

    Supportive findings appeared October 28 in the journal Nature, in an article entitled, “Tumour exosome integrins determine organotropic metastasis.” This article described how the Weill Cornell researchers, in collaboration with scientists from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer center and the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), examined exosomes from mouse and human lung-, liver-, and brain-tropic tumor cells. These exosomes were seen to fuse preferentially with resident cells at their predicted destinations, namely, lung fibroblasts and epithelial cells, liver Kupffer cells, and brain endothelial cells.

    “Exosome proteomics revealed distinct integrin expression patterns, in which the exosomal integrins α6β4 and α6β1 were associated with lung metastasis, while exosomal integrin αvβ5 was linked to liver metastasis,” wrote the authors. “Targeting the integrins α6β4 and αvβ5 decreased exosome uptake, as well as lung and liver metastasis, respectively.”

    In other words, the study demonstrated the importance of integrins in metastatic nesting by blocking specific integrins in tumors that metastasize to specific organs. For example, when integrins were blocked in breast cancer, metastasis to lungs was reduced. Similarly, when integrins were blocked in pancreatic cancer, metastasis to liver was reduced.

    In addition, the study showed that a tumor could be “tricked” by changing the integrin destination code of its exosomes. For example, a tumor that would normally go to the bones could be directed to the lungs instead.

    “The integrin-specific signature that we identified may have significant value clinically, serving as a prognostic indicator for metastasis to specific organ sites,” said senior author David Lyden, M.D., Ph.D., the Stavros S. Niarchos Professor in Pediatric Cardiology and a professor of pediatrics and of cell and developmental biology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Instead of waiting for late-stage metastasis, we can now initiate preventative strategies at an earlier point of disease progression with the hope of preventing its spread. This really changes the treatment paradigm.”


  • Using CRISPR as a High-Throughput Cancer Screening and Modeling Tool
  • Click Image To Enlarge +
    Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists created a new high-throughput screening tool for studying the development and progression of liver cancer in mice. [Ernesto del Aguila III, NHGRI]

    A contingent of researchers from the UK, Germany, and Spain have recently developed a novel CRISPR/Cas9 system that they believe can be utilized as a multiplexed screening approach to study and model cancer development in mice. In the current study, the investigators directly mutated genes within adult mouse livers to elucidate their role in cancer development and progression—simultaneously uncovering the gene combinations that coordinate to cause liver cancer.

    “We reasoned that, by targeting mutations directly to adult liver cells using CRISPR/Cas9, we could better study and understand the biology of this important cancer,” explained co-author Mathias Friedrich, Ph.D., research scientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Other approaches to engineer mutations in mice, such as stem cell manipulation, are limited by the laborious process, the long time frames and large numbers of animals needed. And, our method better mimics important aspects of human cancer biology than many “classic” mouse models: as in most human cancers, the mutations occur in the adult and only affect a few cells”.

    The findings from this study were published online recently in PNAS through an article entitled “CRISPR/Cas9 somatic multiplex-mutagenesis for high-throughput functional cancer genomics in mice.”

    This new approach is rapid, scalable, and extremely efficient, allowing the researchers to examine an array of genes or large regions of the genome concurrently. Moreover, this methodology affords scientists the ability to distinguish between cancer driver mutations and passenger mutations—those that occur as side-effects of cancer development.

    The research team developed a list of up to eighteen genes with known or unknown evidence for their importance in two forms of liver cancer. They then introduced the CRISPR/Cas9 molecules, targeting various combinations of these genes into mice, which subsequently developed liver or bile duct cancer within a few months.

    “Our approach enables us to simultaneously target multiple putative genes in individual cells,” noted co-author Roland Rad, Ph.D., project leader at the Technical University of Munich and the German Cancer Research Center Heidelberg. “We can now rapidly and efficiently screen which genes are cancer-causing and which ones are not. And, we can study how genes work together to cause cancers—a crucial piece of the puzzle we must solve to understand and tackle the disease.”

    The investigators were able to confirm that a set of DNA-binding proteins called ARID (AT-rich interactive domain), influence the organization of chromosomes and are important for liver cancer development. Furthermore, mutations in a second protein, TET2, were found to be causative in bile duct cancer: although TET2 has not been found to be mutated in human biliary cancers, the proteins that it interacts with have been, showing that the CRISPR/Cas9 method can identify human cancer genes that are not mutated, but whose function is disturbed by other events.

    “The new tools of targeting genes in combination and inducing insertions or deletions in chromosomes change our ability to identify new cancer-causing genes and to understand their role in cancer,” stated senior group leader and co-author Allan Bradley, Ph.D., director emeritus from the Sanger Institute. “Our results show that this approach is feasible and productive in liver cancer; we will now continue to study our new findings and try to extend the approach to other cancer types.”

    This CRISPR/Cas9 approach may also be favorable for an in-depth examination of genomic deserts —regions within the human genome that appear to be devoid of genes. Yet, recent data from the ENCODE Project suggests that deserts can be populated, if not by genes, then by DNA regulatory regions that influence the activity of genes.

    “Liver cancer has many DNA alterations in regions lacking genes: we don’t know which of these might be important for the disease,” said Dr. Rad. “However, we could show that it is now possible to delete such regions to systematically determine their role in liver cancer development.”


CRISPR Used to Create Mouse Models of Cancer

  • When scientists study the genetics of cancer, they often breed mice strains that carry selected cancer-associated mutations. But cultivating such strains, usually via transgenesis or gene targeting in embryonic stem cells, is often time-consuming and expensive. Could there be a better way—a faster, cheaper way—to create mice strains that carry particular genetic flaws?

    An alternative has been proposed by researchers from MIT. They have shown that the CRISPR gene editing system can introduce cancer-causing mutations into the livers of adult mice. The researchers anticipate that their method will allow for more rapid testing of any single genes or gene combinations that are suspected of being capable of initiating tumor formation in the liver.

    “The sequencing of human tumors has revealed hundreds of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes in different combinations. The flexibility of this technology, as delivery gets better in the future, will give you a way to pretty rapidly test those combinations,” said Phillip Sharp, Ph.D., a professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

    Dr. Sharp was part of the MIT research team, which was led by Koch Institute director Tyler Jacks, Ph.D. Dr. Jacks noted that the CRISPR technique, which not only provides the ability to delete genes, but also to replace them with altered versions, “really opens up all sorts of new possibilities when you think about the kinds of genes that you would want to mutate in the future.” Both loss of function and gain of function, he explained, are possible.

    The MIT researchers presented their results August 6 in Nature, in an article entitled, “CRISPR-mediated direct mutation of cancer genes in the mouse liver.” It described how cancer models were generated using the CRISPR/Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/CRISPR-associated proteins) system in vivo in wild-type mice.

    “We used hydrodynamic injection to deliver a CRISPR plasmid DNA expressing Cas9 and single guide RNAs (sgRNAs) to the liver that directly target the tumor suppressor genes Pten and p53 (also known as TP53 and Trp53), alone and in combination,” wrote the authors. “CRISPR-mediated Pten mutation led to elevated Akt phosphorylation and lipid accumulation in hepatocytes, phenocopying the effects of deletion of the gene using Cre–LoxP technology. Simultaneous targeting of Pten and p53 induced liver tumors that mimicked those caused by Cre–loxP-mediated deletion of Pten and p53.”

    Studies of such genetically engineered mice have yielded many important discoveries, but the process, which requires introducing mutations into embryonic stem cells, can take more than a year and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Using Cas enzymes targeted to cut snippets of p53 and Pten, the researchers were able to disrupt those two genes in about 3% of liver cells, enough to produce liver tumors within three months.

    With traditional techniques, genetically engineering such models is “a very long process,” commented Dr. Jacks. “And the more genes you’re working with, the longer and more complicated it becomes.

    The researchers also used CRISPR to create a mouse model with an oncogene called beta catenin, which makes cells more likely to become cancerous if additional mutations occur later on. To create this model, the researchers had to cut out the normal version of the gene and replace it with an overactive form, which was successful in about 0.5% of hepatocytes.

    In the Nature article, the authors emphasized that simplified methods of testing the oncogenic properties of candidates in vivo are critical. In particular, they cited the need to somehow evaluate the thousands of candidate cancer genes that are being discovered through next-generation sequencing efforts.

    Already looking forward to refining their method of generating cancer models, the authors suggested that it could attain greater sensitivity if CRISPR/Cas9-mediated mutagenesis could be performed on a “sensitized” background carrying constitutive or conditional mutations in a tumor suppressor gene such as p53. “More efficient delivery techniques, such as adenovirus or adeno-associated virus, more potent sgRNAs, and longer homologous recombination templates,” they wrote, “might also improve the overall efficiency of this method and expand the range of tissue that could be targeted.”



Bioinformatics beyond Genome Crunching  

Flow Cytometry, Workflow Development, and Other Information Stores Can Become Treasure Troves If You Use the Right IT Tools and Services

  • Click Image To Enlarge +
    Shown here is the FlowJo platform’s visualization of surface activation marker expression (CD38) on live lymphocyte CD8+ T cells. Colors represent all combinations of subsets positive and negative for interferon gamma (IFN?), perforin (Perf), and phosphorylated ERK (pERK).

    Advances in bioinformatics are no longer limited to just crunching through genomic and exosomic data. Bioinformatics, a discipline at the interface between biotechnology and information technology, also has lessons for flow cytometry and experimental design, as well as database searches, for both internal and external content.

    One company offering variations on traditional genome crunching is DNAnexus. With the advent of the $1,000 genome, researchers find themselves drowning in data. To analyze the terabytes of information, they must contract with an organization to provide the computing power, or they must perform the necessary server installation and maintenance work in house.

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Nonhematologic Cancer Stem Cells [11.2.3]

Writer and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP 

Nonhematologic Stem Cells C8orf4 negatively regulates self-renewal of liver cancer stem cells via suppression of NOTCH2 signalling

Pingping Zhu, Yanying Wang, Ying Du, Lei He, Guanling Huang, et al.
Nature Communications May 2015; 6(7122).

Liver cancer stem cells (CSCs) harbor self-renewal and differentiation properties, accounting for chemotherapy resistance and recurrence. However, the molecular mechanisms to sustain liver CSCs remain largely unknown. In this study, based on analysis of several hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) transcriptome datasets and our experimental data, we find that C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumors and liver CSCs. C8orf4 attenuates the self-renewal capacity of liver CSCs and tumor propagation. We show that NOTCH2 is activated in liver CSCs. C8orf4 is located in the cytoplasm of HCC tumor cells and associates with the NOTCH2 intracellular domain, which impedes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD. C8orf4 deletion causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD that triggers the NOTCH2 signaling, which sustains the stemness of liver CSCs. Finally, NOTCH2 activation levels are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients. Altogether, C8orf4 negatively regulates the self-renewal of liver CSCs via suppression of NOTCH2 signaling.

Like stem cells, CSCs are characterized by self-renewal and differentiation simultaneously9. Not surprisingly, CSCs share core regulatory genes and developmental pathways with normal tissue stem cells. Accumulating evidence shows that NOTCH, Hedgehog and Wnt signaling pathways are implicated in the regulation of CSC self-renewal4. NOTCH signaling modulates many aspects of metazoan development and tissue stemness1011. NOTCH receptors contain four members (NOTCH1–4) in mammals, which are activated by engagement with various ligands. The aberrant NOTCH signaling was first reported to be involved in the tumorigenesis of human T-cell leukaemia1213. Recently, a number of studies have reported that the NOTCH signaling pathway is implicated in regulating self-renewal of breast stem cells and mammary CSCs1415. However, how the NOTCH signaling regulates the liver CSC self-renewal remains largely unknown.

C8orf4, also called thyroid cancer 1 (TC1), was originally cloned from a papillary thyroid carcinoma and its surrounding normal thyroid tissue16. C8orf4 is ubiquitously expressed across a wide range of vertebrates with the sequence conservation across species. A number of studies have reported that C8orf4 is highly expressed in several tumors and implicated in tumorigenesis171819. In addition, C8orf4 augments Wnt/β-catenin signaling in some cancer cells2021, suggesting it may be involved in the regulation of self-renewal of CSCs. However, the biological function of C8orf4 in the modulation of liver CSC self-renewal is still unknown. Here we show that C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC and liver CSCs. NOTCH2 signaling is highly activated in HCC tumors and liver CSCs. C8orf4 negatively regulates the self-renewal of liver CSCs via suppression of NOTCH2 signaling.

C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tissues and liver CSCs

To search for driver genes in the oncogenesis of HCC, we performed genome-wide analyses using several online-available HCC transcriptome datasets by R language and Bioconductor approaches. After analysing gene expression profiles of HCC tumor and peri-tumor tissues, we identified >360 differentially expressed genes from both Park’s cohort (GSE36376; ref. 22) and Wang’s cohort (GSE14520; refs 2324). Of these changed genes, we focused on C8orf4, which was weakly expressed in HCC tumors derived from both Park’s cohort (GSE36376) and Wang’s cohort (GSE14520) (Fig. 1a). Lower expression of C8orf4 was further confirmed in HCC samples by quantitative reverse transcription–PCR (qRT–PCR) and immunoblotting (Fig. 1b,c). In this study, HCC patient samples we used included all subtypes of HCC. In addition, these observations were further validated by immunohistochemical (IHC) staining (Fig. 1d). These data indicate that C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumor tissues.

C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumours and liver CSCs

C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumours and liver CSCs

Figure 1. C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumours and liver CSCs

(a)C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC patients. Using R language and Bioconductor methods, we analyzed C8orf4 expression in HCC tumor and peri-tumor tissues provided by Park’s cohort (GSE36376) and Wang’s cohort (GSE14520) datasets. (b,c) C8orf4 expression levels were verified in HCC patient samples by quantitative RT–PCR (qRT–PCR) (b) and immunoblotting (c). β-actin served as a loading control. 18S: 18S rRNA. (d) HCC samples were assayed by immunohistochemical staining. Scale bar—left: 50 μm; right: 20 μm. (eC8orf4 is weakly expressed in CD13+CD133+ cells sorted from Huh7 cells and primary HCC samples. C8orf4 messenger RNA (mRNA) was measured by qRT–PCR. Six HCC samples got similar results. (fC8orf4 is much more weakly expressed in oncospheres than non-sphere tumor cells. Non-sphere: Huh7 or HCC primary cells that failed to form spheres. (g) HCC sample tissues were co-stained with anti-C8orf4 and anti-CD13 or anti-CD133 antibodies, then counterstained with DAPI for confocal microscopy. White arrows indicate CD13+ or CD133+ cells. Scale bars: 20 μm. For a,b, data are shown as box and whisker plot. Boxes represent interquartile range (IQR); upper and lower edge corresponds to the 75th and 25th percentiles, respectively. Horizontal lines within boxes represent median levels of gene intensity. Whiskers below and above boxes extend to the 5th and 95th percentiles, respectively. For e and f, Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, *P<0.05;**P<0.01, data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Data are representative of at least three independent experiments. P, peri-tumor; T, tumor.


Notably, C8orf4 was also weakly expressed in embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by analysis of its expression profiles derived from online datasets (GSE14897; ref. 25 and GSE25417; ref. 26) (Supplementary Fig. 1a,b). C8orf4 was also lowly expressed in normal liver stem cells (Supplementary Fig. 1c,d), suggesting that C8orf4 may be involved in the regulation of self-renewal of liver stem cells. Thus, we propose that C8orf4 might play a role in the maintenance of liver CSCs. Since CD13 and CD133 were widely used as liver CSC surface markers, we sorted CD13+CD133+ cells from Huh7 and Hep3B HCC cell lines as well as HCC samples, serving as liver CSCs. We observed that C8orf4 was weakly expressed in liver CSCs enriched from both HCC cell lines and patient samples (Fig. 1e). Six HCC samples were analyzed for these experiments. Similar results were obtained in CD13+CD133+ cells from Hep3B cells. Furthermore, we performed sphere formation experiments using Huh7 cells and HCC primary sample cells, and detected expression levels of C8orf4. We observed that C8orf4 was dramatically reduced in the oncospheres generated by both HCC cell lines and patient samples (Fig. 1f). In addition, we noticed that C8orf4 expression was negatively correlated with liver CSC markers such as CD13 and CD133 in HCC samples (Fig. 1g), suggesting lower expression of C8orf4 in liver CSCs. Moreover, C8orf4 was mainly located in the cytoplasm of tumour cells. Altogether, C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumor tissues and liver CSCs.

C8orf4 negatively regulates self-renewal of liver CSCs

We then wanted to look at whether C8orf4 plays a critical role in the self-renewal maintenance of liver CSCs. C8orf4 was knocked out in Huh7 cells through a CRISPR/Cas9 system (Fig. 2a). TwoC8orf4-knockout (KO) cell strains were established and C8orf4 was completely deleted in these two strains. C8orf4 deletion dramatically enhanced oncosphere formation (Fig. 2b). We co-stained SOX9, a widely used progenitor marker, and Ki67, a well-known proliferation marker, in C8orf4 KO sphere cells. We found that SOX9 was strongly stained in C8orf4 KO sphere cells (Supplementary Fig. 2a). In contrast, Ki67 staining was not significantly altered in C8orf4 KO sphere cells versus WT sphere cells. We also digested sphere cells and examined the SOX9 and Ki67 expression by flow cytometry. Similar results were achieved (Supplementary Fig. 2b). Importantly, through serial passage of CSC sphere cells, similar observations were obtained in the fourth generation oncosphere assay (Supplementary Fig. 2c,d). These data suggest that C8orf4 is involved in the regulation of liver CSC self-renewal.

(not shown)

Figure 2: C8orf4 knockout enhances self-renewal of liver CSCs.

  • C8orf4-deficient Huh7 cells were established using a CRISPR/Cas9 system. T7 endonuclease I cleavage confirmed the efficiency of sgRNA (left panel, white arrowheads), and C8orf4-knockout efficiency was confirmed by western blot (right panel). Two knockout cell lines were used.  C8KO#1:C8orf4KO#1;  C8KO#2C8orf4KO#2. (bC8orf4-deficient cells enhanced sphere formation activity. Calculated ratios are shown in the right panel. (cC8orf4-deficient or WT Huh7 cells (1 × 106) were injected into BALB/c nude mice. Tumor sizes were observed every 5 days. (dC8orf4 deficiency enhances tumor-initiating capacity. Diluted cell numbers of Huh7 cells were implanted into BALB/c nude mice for tumor initiation. Percentages of tumor-formation mice were calculated (left panel), and frequency of tumor-initiating cells was calculated using extreme limiting dilution analysis (right panel). Error bars represent the 95% confidence intervals of the estimation. (e) Expression levels of CD13 andCD133 were analyzed in C8orf4-knockout Huh7 cells. (f) C8orf4 was silenced in HCC primary cells and C8orf4 depletion enhanced sphere formation activity. Calculated ratios are shown at the right panel. Three HCC specimens obtained similar results. (g) C8orf4-overexpressing Huh7 cells were established (left panel). C8orf4-overexpressing Huh7 cells and control Huh7 cells were cultured for sphere formation. (h,i) Xenograft tumor growth (h) and frequency of tumor-initiating cells (i) for C8orf4-overexpressing Huh7 cells were analyzed as c,d. (j) C8orf4 overexpression reduces expression of CD133 and CD13 in Huh7 cells. (k) C8orf4 was transfected in HCC primary cells and cultured for sphere formation. Three HCC patient samples obtained similar results. Scale bars: b,f,g,k, 500 μm. Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis,    *P<0.05; **P<0.01; ***P<0.001, data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Data represent at least three independent experiments. oeC8orf4, overexpression of C8orf4; oeVec, overexpression vector.

In addition, C8orf4-deficient Huh7 cells overtly increased xenograft tumour growth (Fig. 2c). We then performed sphere formation and digested oncospheres formed by C8orf4-deficient or WT cells into single-cell suspension, then subcutaneously implanted 1 × 104, 1 × 103, 1 × 102 and 10 cells into BALB/c nude mice. Tumour formation was examined for tumour-initiating capacity at the third month. C8orf4 deficiency remarkably enhanced tumour-initiating capacity and liver CSC ratios (Fig. 2d). In addition, C8orf4 deletion significantly enhanced expression levels of the liver CSC markers such as CD13 and CD133 (Fig. 2e). We also silenced C8orf4 in HCC primary cells using a lentivirus infection system and established C8orf4-silenced cells. Two pairs of short hairpin RNA (shRNA) sequences obtained similar knockdown efficiency. C8orf4 knockdown remarkably promoted sphere formation and xenograft tumour growth (Fig. 2f and Supplementary Fig. 2e). These data indicate that C8orf4 deletion potentiates the self-renewal of liver CSCs.
We next overexpressed C8orf4 in Huh7 cells and HCC primary cells using lentivirus infection. We observed that C8orf4 overexpression in Huh7 cells remarkably reduced sphere formation and xenograft tumour growth (Fig. 2g,h). In addition, C8orf4 overexpression remarkably reduced tumour-initiating capacity and expression of liver CSC markers (Fig. 2i,j). Similar results were observed by C8orf4 overexpression in HCC primary cells (Fig. 2k). We tested three HCC samples with similar results. Overall, C8orf4 negatively regulates the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal and tumour propagation.

C8orf4 suppresses NOTCH2 signaling in liver CSCs

To further determine the underlying mechanism of C8orf4 in the regulation of liver CSCs, we analyzed three major self-renewal signaling pathways, including Wnt/β-catenin, Hedgehog and NOTCH pathways, in C8orf4-deleted Huh7 cells and HCC primary cells. We found that only NOTCH target genes were remarkably upregulated in C8orf4-deficient cells (Fig. 3a), whereasC8orf4 deficiency did not significantly affect the Wnt/β-catenin or the Hedgehog pathway. Given that the NOTCH family receptors have four members, we wanted to determine which NOTCH member was involved in the C8orf4-mediated suppression of liver CSC stemness. We noticed that only NOTCH2 was highly expressed in both Huh7 cells and HCC samples (Fig. 3b). In addition, this result was also confirmed by analysis of NOTCH expression levels derived from Wang’s cohort (GSE14520) and Petel’s cohort (E-TABM-36; ref. 27) (Fig. 3c). Moreover, we analysed expression profiles of C8orf4 and NOTCH target genes using Park’s cohort (GSE36376) and Wurmbach’s cohort (GSE6764; ref. 28). These cohort datasets provided several Notch signaling and its target genes. HEY1NRARP and HES6 genes were highly expressed in HCC tumour tissues (GSE6764; ref. 28), which were further confirmed in HCC samples by real-time PCR (Supplementary Fig. 3a,b). Furthermore, HEY1NRARP and HES6 genes have been reported to be relatively specific NOTCH target genes. We then examined these three genes as the NOTCH2 target genes throughout this study. We found that the C8orf4 expression level was negatively correlated with the expression levels of HEY1 and HES6, suggesting that C8orf4 inhibited NOTCH signaling in HCC patients (Fig. 3d). Finally these results were further confirmed in HCC samples by qRT-PCR (Fig. 3e). To further explore the activation status of NOTCH2 signaling in liver CSCs, we examined the expression levels of NOTCH downstream target genes in oncospheres and CD13+CD133+ cells derived from both Huh7 cells and HCC cells. We observed that NOTCH target genes were highly expressed in liver CSCs (Fig. 3f,g). These observations were verified by immunoblotting (Fig. 3h). In addition, the expression levels of NRARPHES6 and HEY1 were positively related to the expression levels of EpCAM and CD133 derived from Zhang’s cohort (GSE25097; ref. 29) and Wang’s cohort (GSE14520; Supplementary Fig. 3c,d). These data suggest that the NOTCH2 signaling plays a critical role in the maintenance of self-renewal of liver CSCs.

(not shown)

Figure 3: C8orf4 suppresses NOTCH2 signaling in liver CSCs.

(aC8orf4 deficiency or depletion activates NOTCH signaling. The indicated major stemness signalling pathways were analysed in C8orf4-knockout Huh7 cells (left panel) and C8orf4-silenced primary cells of HCC samples (right panel). (b) Four receptor members of NOTCH family were examined in both Huh7 cells (left panel) and 29 pairs of HCC samples (right panel). (cNOTCH receptors were analyzed from Wang’s cohort (left panel) and Petel’s cohort (right panel) datasets. (dHEY1 and HES6 were highly expressed in C8orf4low samples by analysis of Park’s cohort (upper panel) and Wurmbach’s cohort (lower panel). (e) Expression levels of HEY1 and HES6 along with C8orf4 were analysed in HCC samples by qRT–PCR. (f,g) Expression levels of NRARPHEY1 and HES6 in spheres generated by Huh7 cells and HCC primary cells (f) and in CD13+CD133+ cells sorted from Huh7 cells and HCC primary cells (g). Non-sphere: Huh7 cells or HCC cells that failed to form spheres. (h) HEY1, HES6 and NRARP expression in sphere and non-sphere cells was detected by immunoblotting. β-actin was used as a loading control. For c,d, data are shown as box and whisker plot. Box: interquartile range (IQR); horizontal line within box: median; whiskers: 5–95 percentile. For a,b,f,g, Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, *P<0.05;**P<0.01; ***P<0.001, data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Data are representative of at least three independent experiments.

C8orf4 interacts with NOTCH2 that is critical for liver CSCs

On ligand–receptor binding, the NOTCH receptor experiences a proteolytic cleavage by metalloprotease and γ-secretase, releasing a NOTCH extracellular domain (NECD) and a NOTCH intracellular domain (NICD), respectively30. Then the active NICD undergoes nuclear translocation and activates the expression of NOTCH downstream target genes31.Then we constructed the NOTCH2 extracellular domain (N2ECD) and intracellular domain (N2ICD) and examined the interaction with C8orf4 via a yeast two-hybrid approach. Interestingly, we found that C8orf4 interacted with N2ICD, but not N2ECD (Fig. 4a). The interaction was validated by co-immunoprecipitation (Fig. 4b). Through domain mapping, the ankyrin repeat domain of NOTCH2 was essential and sufficient for its association with C8orf4 (Fig. 4c). Taken together, C8orf4 interacts with the N2ICD domain of NOTCH2.

Figure 4: C8orf4 interacts with NOTCH2 that is required for the self-renewal maintenance of liver CSCs.

C8orf4 interacts with NOTCH2 that is required for the self-renewal maintenance of liver CSCs

C8orf4 interacts with NOTCH2 that is required for the self-renewal maintenance of liver CSCs

(a) C8orf4 interacts with N2ICD. Yeast strain AH109 was co-transfected with Gal4 DNA-binding domain (BD) fused C8orf4 and Gal4-activating domain (AD) fused N2ICD. p53 and large T antigen were used as a positive control. (b) Recombinant Flag-N2ICD and GFP–C8orf4 were incubated for co-immunoprecipitation. (c) The ankyrin repeat AR domain is essential and sufficient for the interaction of C8orf4 with N2ICD. Various N2ICD truncation constructs were co-transfected with GFP–C8orf4 for domain mapping. NLS: nuclear location signal. (d) NOTCH2 was knocked down in Huh7 cells and detected by qRT–PCR and immunoblotting. (e) NOTCH2-silenced Huh7 cells were cultured for sphere formation assays. Two pairs of shRNAs against NOTCH2 obtained similar results. (f,g) Xenograft tumor growth (f) and frequency of tumor-initiating cells (g) for NOTCH2-silenced Huh7 cells were analyzed. (h) NOTCH2 was silenced in HCC primary cells and NOTCH2 depletion declined sphere formation activity. Three HCC specimens obtained similar results. (i) Sphere formation capacity was examined in differently treated HCC primary cells. (j) HCC primary cells were treated with indicated lentivirus and implanted into BALB/c nude mice for xenograft tumor growth assays. Scale bars: e,h,i, 500 μm, Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, *P<0.05; **P<0.01; ***P<0.001, data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Data are representative of at least three independent experiments. IB, immunoblotting; IP, immunoprecipitation; NS, not significant.

To further verify the role of NOTCH2 in the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal, we knocked down NOTCH2 in Huh7 cells and established stably depleted cell lines by two pairs of NOTCH2 shRNAs (Fig. 4d). NOTCH2 knockdown dramatically reduced sphere formation (Fig. 4e), as well as attenuated xenograft tumor growth and tumor-initiating capacity (Fig. 4f,g). Similar observations were achieved in NOTCH2-depleted HCC primary cells (Fig. 4h). In addition, we found that simultaneous knockdown of NOTCH2 and overexpression of C8orf4 failed to reduce sphere formation capacity compared with individual knockdown of NOTCH2 (Fig. 4i), suggesting that NOTCH2 and C8orf4 affected sphere formation through the same pathway. Meanwhile, C8orf4 knockdown failed to rescue the sphere formation ability of NOTCH2-depleted HCC primary cells (Fig. 4i). Similar observations were obtained in Huh7 cells (Supplementary Fig. 4). Finally, NOTCH2 depletion in C8orf4-silenced Huh7 cells or HCC primary cells also abrogated the C8orf4 depletion-mediated enhancement of xenograft tumor growth (Fig. 4j), suggesting that C8orf4 acted as upstream of NOTCH2 signaling. These data suggest that C8orf4 suppresses the liver CSC stemness through inhibiting the NOTCH2 signaling pathway.

C8orf4 blocks nuclear translocation of N2ICD

As shown in Fig. 1g, C8orf4 was mainly localized in the cytoplasm in tumor cells of HCC samples. To confirm these observations, we stained C8orf4 in several HCC cell lines and noticed that C8orf4 also resided in the cytoplasm of Huh7 cells and Hep3B cells (Fig. 5a and Supplementary Fig. 5a). These results were further validated by cellular fractionation (Fig. 5b). Importantly, C8orf4 KO led to nuclear translocation of N2ICD (Fig. 5c). In addition, we also examined the intracellular location of N2ICD in Huh7 spheres. We found that C8orf4 deletion caused complete nuclear translocation of N2ICD in oncosphere cells (Fig. 5d,e), while N2ICD was mainly located in the cytoplasm of WT oncosphere cells. However, we found that C8orf4 KO did not affect subcellular localization of β-catenin (Supplementary Fig. 5b,c). Through luciferase assays, C8orf4 transfection did not significantly influence promoter transcription activity of Wnt target genes such as TCF1, LEF and SOX4 (Supplementary Fig. 5d). These data indicate that C8orf4 resides in the cytoplasm of HCC cells and inhibits nuclear translocation of N2ICD.

C8orf4 deletion causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD

C8orf4 deletion causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD

Figure 5: C8orf4 deletion causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD.

(a) C8orf4 resides in the cytoplasm of Huh7 cells. Huh7 cells were permeabilized and stained with anti-C8orf4 antibody, then counterstained with PI for confocal microscopy. (b) Cellular fractionation was performed and detected by immunoblotting. (c,d) C8orf4 knockout causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD. C8orf4-deficient Huh7 cells (c) and sphere cells (d) were permeabilized and stained with anti-C8orf4 and anti-N2ICD antibodies, then counterstained with DAPI followed by confocal microscopy. (e) Cellular fractionation was performed in C8orf4-deficient sphere and WT sphere cells followed by immunoblotting. (f) C8orf4-deficient Huh7 cells were implanted into BALB/c nude mice. Xenograft tumors were analyzed by immunohistochemical staining. Red arrowheads denote nuclear translocation of N2ICD. (g) C8orf4-overexpressing Huh7 cells were permeabilized for immunofluorescence staining. (h) Cellular fractionation was performed in C8orf4-overexpressing Huh7 cells for immunoblotting. (i,j) C8orf4 was overexpressed in N2ICD-overexpressing Huh7 cells followed by immunofluorescence staining (i) and immunoblotting (j). (k) NOTCH target genes were measured in cells treated as in i by real-time PCR. Scale bars: a,c,d,g,i, 10 μm; f, 40 μm. Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, **P<0.01;***P<0.001, data are shown as mean±s.d.. Data represent at least three independent experiments.

To further determine whether C8orf4 inhibits the NOTCH2 signaling in the propagation of xenograft tumors, we examined the distribution of N2ICD and NOTCH2 target gene activation inC8orf4-deficient xenograft tumor tissues. We found that C8orf4-deficient tumors displayed much more nuclear translocation of N2ICD compared with WT tumors (Fig. 5f). Expectedly, C8orf4-deficient tumors showed elevated expression levels of NOTCH2 target genes such as HEY1, HES6 and NRARP (Supplementary Fig. 5e). Furthermore, C8orf4 overexpression blocked the nuclear translocation of N2ICD (Fig. 5g,h). Consequently, C8orf4-overexpressing tumors showed much less N2ICD nuclear translocation and reduced expression levels of NOTCH2 target genes compared with control tumors (Supplementary Fig. 5f,g). Of note, C8orf4 overexpression in N2ICD-overexpressing Huh7 cells still blocked nuclear translocation of N2ICD (Fig. 5i,j). Consequently, C8orf4 overexpression abolished the activation of Notch2 signaling (Fig. 5k). These results suggest that C8orf4 deletion causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD leading to activation of NOTCH2 signaling.

NOTCH2 signalling is required for the stemness of liver CSCs

To further verify the role of NRARP and HEY1 in the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal, we knocked down these two genes in Huh7 cells and established stably depleted cell lines by two pairs of shRNAs. As expected, NRARP knockdown dramatically reduced sphere formation (Fig. 6a,b). NRARP knockdown also attenuated tumor-initiating capacity and liver CSC ratios (Fig. 6c). Similar results were achieved in NRARP-silenced HCC primary cells (Fig. 6d,e). Similarly, HEY1 silencing remarkably reduced sphere formation derived from Huh7 and HCC primary cells (Fig. 6f–i), as well as declined xenograft tumor growth and tumor-initiating capacity (Supplementary Fig. 6a,b). In sum, NOTCH2 signaling is required for the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal.

(not shown)

Figure 6: Depletion of NRARP and HEY1 impairs stemness of liver CSCs.

(a,b) NRARP-silenced Huh7 cells were established (a) and showed reduced sphere formation capacity (b). Two pairs of shRNAs against NRARP obtained similar results. (c) NRARP-silenced Huh7 cells decline tumour-initiating capacity (left panel) and reduce liver CSC frequency (right panel). Error bars represent the 95% confidence intervals of the estimation. (d,e) NRARP was knocked down in HCC primary cells (d) and sphere formation was detected (e). Three HCC samples were tested with similar results. (f,g) HEY1-silenced Huh7 cells were established (f) and sphere formation was assayed (g). Two pairs of shRNAs against HEY1 obtained similar results. (h,i) HEY1 was knocked down in HCC primary cells (h) and HEY1 depletion impaired sphere formation capacity (i). Three HCC samples were tested with similar results. Scale bars: b,e,g,i, 500 μm. For a,b,di, Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, *P<0.05; **P<0.01;  ***P<0.001, data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Data are representative of at least three independent experiments.

NOTCH2 signaling is correlated with HCC severity

As shown above, the NOTCH2 signaling was highly activated in liver CSCs and involved in the regulation of liver CSC stemness. We further examined the relationship of NOTCH2 signaling with the progression of HCC. First, we analyzed NOTCH2 activation levels in HCC tumor tissues and peri-tumor tissues derived from Park’s cohort (GSE36376). We observed that HEY1HES6 and NRARP were highly expressed in the tumor tissues of HCC patients (Fig. 7a). Consistently, high expression levels of HEY1HES6 and NRARP in HCC tumors were validated by Zhang’s cohort (GSE25097) (Fig. 7b). Importantly, high expression of these three genes was confirmed in HCC samples through quantitative RT–PCR (Fig. 7c), as well as immunoblotting (Fig. 7d). To confirm a causative link between low C8orf4 expression level and nuclear N2ICD, we examined 93 HCC samples (31 peri-tumor, 37 early stage of HCC patients and 25 advanced stage of HCC patients) with immunohistochemistry staining. We observed that nuclear staining of N2ICD appeared in ~10% tumor cells in the majority of early HCC patients we tested (Fig. 7e,f). In advanced HCC patients, nuclear staining of N2ICD in tumor cells increased to ~30% in almost all the advanced HCC patients we examined. Consequently, HEY1 staining existed in ~10% tumor cells with scattered distribution and increased to 30% tumor cells in the advanced HCC patients (Fig. 7e). Consistently, low expression of C8orf4 was well correlated with activation of NOTCH2 signaling (Fig. 7e,f).

NOTCH2 activation levels are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients

NOTCH2 activation levels are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients

Figure 7: NOTCH2 activation levels are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients.

(a,b) NOTCH target genes were highly expressed in HCC tumour tissues derived from Park’s cohort (a) and Zhang’s cohort (b). (c) High expression levels of NOTCH target genes in HCC tumor tissues were verified by qRT–PCR. (d) HEY1 expression in HCC tumor tissues was detected by western blot. (e) IHC staining for N2ICD, C8orf4 and HEY1. These images represent 93 HCC samples. Scale bars, 50 μm. (f) IHC images were calculated using Image-Pro Plus 6. (g) Expression levels of NOTCH target genes were elevated in HCC tumors and advanced HCC patients derived from Wang’s cohort. (hHEY1 expression level was positively correlated with prognosis prediction of HCC patients analyzed by Petel’s cohort and Wang’s cohort. HCC samples were divided into two groups according to HEY1 expression levels followed by Kaplan–Meier survival analysis. For ac, data are shown as box and whisker plot, Box: interquartile range (IQR); horizontal line within box: median; whiskers: 5–95 percentile. For f,g, Student’s t-test was used for statistical analysis, *P<0.05; **P<0.01; ***P<0.001; data are shown as mean ± standard deviation. Experiments were repeated at least three times. aHCC, advanced HCC; CL, cirrhosis liver; eHCC, early HCC; IL, inflammatory liver; NL, normal liver; NS, not significant.

Serial passages of colonies or sphere formation in vitro, as well as transplantation of tumor cells, are frequently used to assess the long-term self-renewal capacities of CSCs32. We used HCC primary cells for serial passage growth in vitro and tested the expression levels of C8orf4HEY1 and SOX9. We found that C8orf4 expression was gradually reduced over serial passages in oncosphere cells (Supplementary Fig. 7a). Consequently, the expression of NOTCH2 targets such as HEY1 and SOX9 was gradually increased in oncosphere cells during serial passages (Supplementary Fig. 7b). In addition, N2ICD nuclear translocation appeared in oncosphere cells with high expression of HEY1 plus low expression of C8orf4 (termed as C8orf4/N2ICDnuc/HEY1+cells) (Supplementary Fig. 7c). These data suggest that the C8orf4/N2ICDnuc/HEY1+ fraction cells represent a subset of liver CSCs.

Through analyzing Wang’s cohort (GSE54238), we noticed that the NOTCH2 activation levels were positively correlated with the development and progression of HCC (Fig. 7g). By contrast, the NOTCH2 pathway was not activated in inflammation liver, cirrhosis liver and normal liver (Fig. 7f). Consistently, similar observations were achieved by analysis of Zhang’s cohort (GSE25097) (Supplementary Fig. 7d). In addition, the NOTCH2 activation levels were consistent with clinicopathological stages of HCC patients derived from Wang’s cohort (GSE14520) (Supplementary Fig. 7e). Finally, HCC patients with higher expression of HEY1 displayed worse prognosis derived from Petel’s cohort (E-TABM-36) and Wang’s cohort (GSE14520) (Fig. 7h). These two cohorts (E-TABM-36 and GSE14520) have survival information of HCC patients. Taken together, the NOTCH2 activation levels in tumor tissues are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients.


CSC have been identified in many solid tumors, including breast, lung, brain, liver, colon, prostate and bladder cancers4633. CSCs have similar characteristics associated with normal tissue stem cells, including self-renewal, differentiation and the ability to form new tumors. CSCs may be responsible for cancer relapse and metastasis due to their invasive and drug-resistant capacities34. Thus, targeting CSCs may become a promising therapeutic strategy to deadly malignancies3536. However, it remains largely unknown about hepatic CSC biology. In this study, we used CD13 and CD133 to enrich CD13+CD133+
subpopulation cells as liver CSCs. Based on analysis of several online-available HCC transcriptome datasets, we found that C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumors as well as in CD13+CD133+ liver CSCs. NOTCH2 signaling is required for the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal. C8orf4 resides in the cytoplasm of tumor cells and interacts with N2ICD, blocking the nuclear translocation of N2ICD. Lower expression of C8orf4 causes nuclear translocation of N2ICD that activates NOTCH2 signaling in liver CSCs. NOTCH2 activation levels are consistent with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients. Therefore, C8orf4 negatively regulates self-renewal of liver CSCs via suppression of NOTCH2 signaling.

Elucidating signaling pathways that maintains self-renewal of liver CSCs is pivotal for the understanding of hepatic CSC biology and the development of novel therapies against HCC. Several signaling pathways, such as Wnt/β-catenin, transforming growth factor-beta, AKT and STAT3 pathways, have been defined to be implicated in the regulation of liver CSCs37. Not surprisingly, some liver CSC subsets and normal tissue stem cells may share core regulatory genes and common signaling pathways. The NOTCH signaling pathway plays an important role in development via cell-fate determination, proliferation and cell survival3839. The NOTCH family receptors contain four members in mammals (NOTCH1–4), which are activated by binding to their corresponding ligands. A large body of evidence provides that NOTCH signaling is implicated in carcinogenesis40. However, the role of NOTCH signaling in liver cancer is controversial. A previous study reported that NOTCH1 signaling suppresses tumor growth of HCC41. Recently, several reports showed that NOTCH signaling enhances liver tumor initiation424344. Importantly, a recent study showed that various NOTCH receptors have differential functions in the development of liver cancer45. Here we demonstrate that NOTCH2 signaling is activated in HCC tumor tissues and liver CSCs, which is required for the maintenance of liver CSC self-renewal.

C8orf4, also known as TC1, was originally cloned from a papillary thyroid cancer16, 46. The copy number variations of C8orf4 are associated with acute myeloid leukemia and other hematological malignancies19, 47. C8orf4 has been reported to be implicated in various cancers. C8orf4 was highly expressed in thyroid cancer, gastric cancer and breast cancer16, 20, 46. C8orf4 has been reported to enhance Wnt/β-catenin signaling in cancer cells that is associated with poor prognosis20, 21. However, C8orf4 is downregulated in colon cancer48. In this study, we show that C8orf4 is weakly expressed in HCC tumor tissues and liver CSCs. Our observations were confirmed by two HCC cohort datasets. Importantly, C8orf4 negatively regulates the NOTCH2 signaling to suppress the self-renewal of liver CSCs. Therefore, C8orf4 may exert distinct functions in the regulation of various malignancies.

NOTCH receptors consist of noncovalently bound extracellular and transmembrane domains. Once binding with membrane-bound Delta or Jagged ligands, the NOTCH receptors undergoes a proteolytic step by metalloprotease and γ-secretase, generating NECD and NICD fragments11, 31. The NICD, a soluble fragment, is released in the cytoplasm on proteolysis. Then the NICD translocates to the nucleus and binds to the transcription initiation complex, leading to activation of NOTCH-associated target genes49. However, it is largely unclear how the NICD is regulated during NOTCH signaling activation. Here we show that N2ICD binds to C8orf4 in the cytoplasm of liver non-CSC tumor cells, which impedes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD. By contrast, in liver CSCs, lower expression of C8orf4 causes the nuclear translocation of N2ICD, leading to activation of NOTCH signaling.

CSCs or tumour-initiating cells, behave like tissue stem cells in that they are capable of self-renewal and of giving rise to hierarchical organization of heterogeneous cancer cells4. Thus, CSCs harbour the stem cell properties of self-renewal and differentiation. Actually, the CSC model cannot account for tumorigenesis in all tumours. CSCs could undergo genetic evolution, and the non-CSCs might switch to CSC-like cells4. These results highlight the dynamic nature of CSCs, suggesting that the clonal evolution and CSC models can act in concert for tumorigenesis. Furthermore, low C8orf4 expression in tumor cells results in overall Notch2 activation, which then may have more of a progenitor signature and be more aggressive. These cells would likely have a growth advantage in non-adherent conditions and express many of the stemness markers. The dynamic nature of CSCs or persistent NOTCH2 activation may contribute to the high number of C8orf4/N2ICDnuc/HEY1+ cells in advanced HCC tumors and correlation in the patient cohort.

A recent study showed that NOTCH2 and its ligand Jag1 are highly expressed in human HCC tumors, suggesting activation of NOTCH2 signaling in HCC45. In addition, inhibiting NOTCH2 or Jag1 dramatically reduces tumor burden and growth. However, suppression of NOTCH3 has no effect on tumor growth. Dill et al.43 reported that Notch2 is an oncogene in HCC. Notch2-driven HCC are poorly differentiated with a high expression level of the progenitor marker Sox9, indicating a critical role of Notch2 signaling in liver CSCs. Here we found that NOTCH2 and its target genes such as NRARP, HEY1 and HES6 are highly expressed in HCC samples. In addition, depletion of NRARP and HEY1 impairs the stemness maintenance of liver CSCs and tumor propagation. Moreover, the expression levels of NRARP, HEY1 and HES6 in tumors are positively correlated with clinical severity and prognosis of HCC patients. Finally, the NOTCH2 activation status is positively related to the clinicopathological stages of HCC patients. Altogether, C8orf4 and NOTCH2 signaling can be detected for the diagnosis and prognosis prediction of HCC patients, as well as used as targets for eradicating liver CSCs for future therapy. Quantifying the Landscape for Development and Cancer from a Core Cancer Stem Cell Circuit

The authors developed a landscape and path theoretical framework to investigate the global natures and dynamics for a core cancer stem cell gene network. The landscape exhibits four basins of attraction, representing cancer stem cell, stem cell, cancer and normal cell states. They also uncovered certain key genes and regulations responsible for determining the switching between different states. [Cancer Res]

Chunhe Li and Jin Wang
Cancer Res May 13, 2015; 75(10).

Cancer presents a serious threat to human health. The understanding of the cell fate determination during development and tumor genesis remains challenging in current cancer biology. It was suggested that cancer stem cell (CSC) may arise from normal stem cells, or be transformed from normal differentiated cells. This gives hints on the connection between cancer and development. However, the molecular mechanisms of these cell type transitions and the CSC formation remain elusive. We quantified landscape, dominant paths and switching rates between cell types from a core gene regulatory network for cancer and development. Stem cell, CSC, cancer, and normal cell types emerge as basins of attraction on associated landscape. The dominant paths quantify the transition processes among CSC, stem cell, normal cell and cancer cell attractors. Transition actions of the dominant paths are shown to be closely related to switching rates between cell types, but not always to the barriers in between, due to the presence of the curl flux. During the process of P53 gene activation, landscape topography changes gradually from a CSC attractor to a normal cell attractor. This confirms the roles of P53 of preventing the formation of CSC, through suppressing self-renewal and inducing differentiation. By global sensitivity analysis according to landscape topography and action, we identified key regulations determining cell type switchings and suggested testable predictions. From landscape view, the emergence of the CSCs and the associated switching to other cell types are the results of underlying interactions among cancer and developmental marker genes. This indicates that the cancer and development are intimately connected. This landscape and flux theoretical framework provides a quantitative way to understand the underlying mechanisms of CSC formation and interplay between cancer and development. Major Findings: We developed a landscape and path theoretical framework to investigate the global natures and dynamics for a core cancer stem cell gene network. Landscape exhibits four basins of attraction, representing CSC, stem cell, cancer and normal cell states. We quantified the kinetic rate and paths between different attractor states. We uncovered certain key genes and regulations responsible for determining the switching between different states. IMP3 Promotes Stem-Like Properties in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer by Regulating SLUG

Scientists observed that insulin-like growth factor-2 mRNA binding protein 3 (IMP3) expression is significantly higher in tumor initiating than in non-tumor initiating breast cancer cells and demonstrated that IMP3 contributes to self-renewal and tumor initiation, properties associated with cancer stem cells. [Oncogene]

S Samanta, H Sun, H L Goel, B Pursell, C Chang, A Khan, et al.
 , (18 May 2015) |

IMP3 (insulin-like growth factor-2 mRNA binding protein 3) is an oncofetal protein whose expression is prognostic for poor outcome in several cancers. Although IMP3 is expressed preferentially in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), its function is poorly understood. We observed that IMP3 expression is significantly higher in tumor initiating than in non-tumor initiating breast cancer cells and we demonstrate that IMP3 contributes to self-renewal and tumor initiation, properties associated with cancer stem cells (CSCs). The mechanism by which IMP3 contributes to this phenotype involves its ability to induce the stem cell factor SOX2. IMP3 does not interact with SOX2 mRNA significantly or regulate SOX2 expression directly. We discovered that IMP3 binds avidly to SNAI2 (SLUG) mRNA and regulates its expression by binding to the 5′ UTR. This finding is significant because SLUG has been implicated in breast CSCs and TNBC. Moreover, we show that SOX2 is a transcriptional target of SLUG. These data establish a novel mechanism of breast tumor initiation involving IMP3 and they provide a rationale for its association with aggressive disease and poor outcome. Type II Transglutaminase Stimulates Epidermal Cancer Stem Cell Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition

Researchers investigated the role of type II transglutaminase (TG2) in regulating epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) in epidermal cancer stem cells. They showed that TG2 knockdown or treatment with TG2 inhibitor, resulted in a reduced EMT marker expression, and reduced cell migration and invasion. [Oncotarget]

ML Fisher, G Adhikary, W Xu, C Kerr, JW Keillor, RL Ecker
Oncotarget May 08, 2015;

Type II transglutaminase (TG2) is a multifunctional protein that has recently been implicated as having a role in ECS cell survival. In the present study we investigate the role of TG2 in regulating epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) in ECS cells. Our studies show that TG2 knockdown or treatment with TG2 inhibitor, results in a reduced EMT marker expression, and reduced cell migration and invasion. TG2 has several activities, but the most prominent are its transamidase and GTP binding activity. Analysis of a series of TG2 mutants reveals that TG2 GTP binding activity, but not the transamidase activity, is required for expression of EMT markers (Twist, Snail, Slug, vimentin, fibronectin, N-cadherin and HIF-1α), and increased ECS cell invasion and migration. This coupled with reduced expression of E-cadherin. Additional studies indicate that NFϰB signaling, which has been implicated as mediating TG2 impact on EMT in breast cancer cells, is not involved in TG2 regulation of EMT in skin cancer. These studies suggest that TG2 is required for maintenance of ECS cell EMT, invasion and migration, and suggests that inhibiting TG2 GTP binding/G-protein related activity may reduce skin cancer tumor survival.

Epidermal squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is among the most common cancers and the frequency is increasing at a rapid rate [1,2]. SCC is treated by surgical excision, but the rate of recurrence approaches 10% and the recurrent tumors are aggressive and difficult to treat [2]. We propose that human epidermal cancer stem (ECS) cells survive at the site of tumor excision, that these cells give rise to tumor regrowth, and that therapies targeted to kill ECS cells constitute a viable anti-cancer strategy. An important goal in this context is identifying and inhibiting activity of key proteins that are essential for ECS cell survival. Working towards this goal, we have developed systems for propagation of human ECS cells [3]. These cells display properties of cancer stem cells including self-renew and high level expression of stem cell marker proteins [3].

In the present study we demonstrate that ECS cells express proteins characteristic of cells undergoing EMT (epithelial-mesenchymal transition). EMT is a morphogenetic process whereby epithelial cells lose epithelial properties and assume mesenchymal characteristics [4]. The epithelial cells lose cell-cell contact and polarity, and assume a mesenchymal migratory phenotype. There are three types of EMT. This first is an embryonic process, during gastrulation, when the epithelial sheet gives rise to the mesoderm [5]. The second is a growth factor and cytokine-stimulated EMT that occurs at sites of tissue injury to facilitate wound repair [6]. The third is associated with epithelial cancer cell acquisition of a mesenchymal migratory/invasive phenotype. This process mimics normal EMT, but is not as well controlled and coordinated [478]. A number of transcription factors (ZEB1, ZEB2, snail, slug, and twist) that are expressed during EMT suppress expression of epithelial makers, including E-cadherin, desmoplakin and claudins [4]. Snail proteins also activate expression of vimentin, fibronectin and metalloproteinases [4]. Snail factors are not present in normal epithelial cells, but are present in the tumor cells and are prognostic factors for poor survival [4].

An important goal is identifying factors that provide overarching control of EMT in cancer stem cells. In this context, several recent papers implicate type II transglutaminase (TG2) as a regulator of EMT [912]. TG2, the best studied transglutaminase, was isolated in 1957 from guinea pig liver extract as an enzyme involved in the covalent crosslinks proteins via formation of isopeptide bonds [13]. However, subsequent studies reveal that TG2 also serves as a scaffolding protein, regulates cell adhesion, and modulates signal transduction as a GTP binding protein that participates in G protein signaling [14]. TG2 is markedly overexpressed in cancer cells, is involved in cancer development [1518], and has been implicated in maintaining and enhancing EMT in breast and ovarian cancer [10121920]. The G protein function may have an important role in these processes [102123].

In the present manuscript we study the role of TG2 in regulating EMT in human ECS cells. Our studies show that TG2 is highly enriched in ECS cells. We further show that these cells express EMT markers and that TG2 is required to maintain EMT protein expression. TG2 knockdown, or treatment with TG2 inhibitor, reduces EMT marker expression and ECS cell survival, invasion and migration. TG2 GTP binding activity is absolutely required for maintenance of EMT protein expression and EMT-related responses. However, in contrast to breast cancer [910], we show that TG2 regulation of EMT is not mediated via NFκB signaling.

TG2 is required for expression of EMT markers

EMT is a property of tumor stem cells that confers an ability to migrate and invade surrounding tissue [2426]. We first examined whether ECS cells express EMT markers. Non-stem cancer cells and ECS cells, derived from the SCC-13 cancer cell line, were analyzed for expression of EMT markers. Fig. 1A shows that a host of EMT transcriptional regulators, including Twist, Snail and Slug, are increased in ECS cells (spheroid) as compared to non-stem cancer cells (monolayer). This is associated with increased levels of vimentin, fibronectin and N-cadherin, which are mesenchymal proteins, and reduced expression of E-cadherin, an epithelial marker. HIF-1α, an additional marker frequently associated with EMT, is also elevated. We next examined whether TG2 is required to maintain EMT marker expression. SCC-13 cell-derived ECS cells were grown in the presence of control- or TG2-siRNA, to reduce TG2, and the impact on EMT marker level was measured. Fig. 1B shows that loss of TG2 is associated with reduced expression of Twist, Snail, vimentin and HIF-1α. To further assess the role of TG2, we utilized SCC13-Control-shRNA and SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cell lines. These lines were produced by infection of SCC-13 cells with lentiviruses encoding control- or TG2-specific shRNA. Fig. 1C shows that SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells express markedly reduced levels of TG2 and that this is associated with reduced expression of EMT associated transcription factors and target proteins, and increased expression of E-cadherin. To confirm this, we grew SCC13-Control-shRNA and SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells as monolayer cultures for immunostain detection of EMT markers. As shown in Fig. 2A, TG2 levels are reduced in TG2-shRNA expressing cells, and this is associated with the anticipated changes in epithelial and mesenchymal marker expression.

Tumor cells that express EMT markers display enhanced migration and invasion ability [2426]. We therefore examined the impact of TG2 reduction on these responses. To measure invasion, control-shRNA and TG2-shRNA cells were monitored for ability to move through matrigel. Fig. 2B shows that loss of TG2 reduces movement through matrigel by 50%. We further show that this is associated with a reduction in cell migration using a monolayer culture wound closure assay. The control cells close the wound completely within 14 h, while TG2 knockdown reduces closure rate (Fig. 2C).

TG2 inhibitor reduces EMT marker expression and EMT functional responses

NC9 is a recently developed TG2-specific inhibitor [2728]. We therefore asked whether pharmacologic inhibition of TG2 suppresses EMT. SCC-13 cells were treated with 0 or 20 μM NC9. Fig. 3A shows that NC9 treatment reduces EMT transcription factor (Twist, Snail, Slug) and EMT marker (vimentin, fibronectin, N-cadherin, HIF-1α) levels. Consistent with these changes, the level of the epithelial marker, E-cadherin, is elevated. Fig. 3B and 3C show that pharmacologic inhibition of TG2 activity also reduces EMT biological response. Invasion (Fig. 3B) and cell migration (Fig. 3C) are also reduced.

Identification of TG2 functional domain required for EMT

We next performed studies to identify the functional domains and activities required for TG2 regulation of EMT. TG2 is a multifunctional enzyme that serves as a scaffolding protein, as a transamidase, as a kinase, and as a GTP binding protein [21]. The two best studied functions are the transamidase and GTP binding/G-protein related activities [21]. Transamidase activity is observed in the presence of elevated intracellular calcium, while GTP binding-related signaling is favored by low calcium conditions (reviewed in [21]). To identify the TG2 activity required for EMT, we measured the ability of wild-type and mutant TG2 to restore EMT in SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells, which have reduced TG2 expression (Fig. 4A). SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells display reduced expression of EMT markers including Twist, Snail, Slug, vimentin, fibronectin, N-cadherin and HIF-1α, and increased expression of the epithelial maker, E-cadherin, as compared to SCC13-Control-shRNA cells. Expression of wild-type TG2, or the TG2-C277S or TG2-W241A mutants, restores marker expression in SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells (Fig. 4A). TG2-C277S and TG2-W241A lack transamidase activity [10,2931]. In contrast, TG2-R580A, which lacks G-protein activity [2931], and TG2-Y516F, which retains only partial G-protein activity [30], do not efficiently restore marker expression. These findings suggest that the TG2 GTP binding function is required for EMT.

We next assayed the ability of the TG2 mutants to restore EMT functional responses-invasion and migration. Fig. 4B4C shows that wild-type TG2, TG2-C277S and TG2-W241A restore the ability of SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells to invade matrigel, but TG2-R580A and Y516F are less active. Fig. 4D shows a similar finding for cell migration, in that the TG2-R580A and Y517F mutant are only partially able to restore SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cell migration. These findings suggest that TG2 GTP binding/G-protein related activity is required for EMT-related migration and invasion by skin cancer cells.

Role of TG2 in regulating EMT in A431 cells

The number of available epidermis-derived squamous cell carcinoma cell lines is limited, and so we compared our findings with A431 cells. A431 cells are squamous cell carcinoma cells established from human vulvar skin. A431 cells were grown as monolayer (non-stem cancer cells) and spheroids (ECS cells) and after 10 d the cells were harvested and assayed for expression of TG2 and EMT makers. Fig. 5A shows that TG2 levels are elevated in ECS cells and that this is associated with increased levels of mesenchymal markers, including Twist, Snail, Slug, vimentin, fibronectin, N-cadherin and HIF-1α. In contrast, E-cadherin levels are reduced. We next examined the impact of TG2 knockdown on EMT marker expression. Fig. 5B shows that mesenchymal markers are globally reduced and E-cadherin level is increased. As a biological endpoint of EMT, we examine the impact of TG2 knockdown on spheroid formation and found that TG2 loss leads to reduced spheroid formation (Fig. 5C). We next examined the impact of NC9 treatment on EMT and found a reduction in EMT markers expression associated with an increase in epithelial (E-cadherin) marker level (Fig. 5D). This loss of EMT marker expression is associated with reduced matrigel invasion (Fig. 5E), reduced spheroid formation (Fig. 5F) and reduced cell migration (Fig. 5G).

Role of NFκB

Previous studies in breast [183236], ovarian cancer [123738], and epidermoid carcinoma [11] indicate that NFκB signaling mediates TG2 impact on EMT. We therefore assessed the role of NFκB in skin cancer cells. As shown in Fig. 6A, the increase in TG2 level observed in ECS cells (spheroids) is associated with reduced NFκB level. In addition, NFκB level is increased in TG2 knockdown cells (Fig. 6B). Thus, increased NFκB is not associated with increased TG2. We next assessed the impact of NFκB knockdown on TG2 control of EMT marker expression. Fig. 6C shows that TG2 is required for increased expression of EMT markers (HIF-1α, snail, twist, N-cadherin, vimentin and fibronectin) and reduced expression of the E-cadherin epithelial marker; however, knockdown of NFκB expression does not interfere with TG2 regulation of these endpoints. We next examined the effect of TG2 knockdown on NFκB and IκBα localization. The fluorescence images in Fig. 6D suggest that TG2 knockdown with TG2-siRNA does not alter the intracellular localization of NFκB or IκBα. This is confirmed by subcellular fractionation assay (Fig. 6E) which compares NFκB level in SCC13-TG2-Control and SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 (TG2 knockdown) cells. We also monitored NFκB subcellular distribution following treatment with NC9, the TG2 inhibitor. Fig. 6F shows that cytoplasmic/nuclear distribution of NFκB is not altered by NC9. Finally, we monitored the impact of TG2 expression on NFκB binding to a canonical NFκB-response element. Increased NFκB binding to the response element is a direct measure of NFκB activity [10]. Fig. 6G shows that overall binding is reduced in nuclear (N) extract prepared from ECS cells (spheroids) as compared to non-stem cancer cells (monolayer), and that NFkB binding, as indicated by gel supershift assay, is also slightly reduced in ECS cell extracts. These findings indicate that NFkB binding is slightly reduced in ECS cells, which are TG2-enriched (Fig. 1A).

We next monitored the role of NFκB on biological endpoints of EMT. Fig. 7A and 7B show that TG2 knockdown reduces migration through matrigel, but NFκB knockdown has no impact. Likewise, TG2 knockdown reduces wound closure, but NFκB knockdown does not. These findings suggest that NFκB does not mediate the pro-EMT actions of TG2 in epidermal squamous cell carcinoma.

The metastatic cascade, from primary tumor to metastasis, is a complex process involving multiple pathways and signaling cascades [3941]. Cells that complete the metastatic cascade migrate away from the primary tumor through the blood to a distant site and there form a secondary tumor. Identifying the mechanisms that allow cells to survive this journey and form secondary tumors is an important goal. The processes involved in epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) are important cancer therapy targets, as EMT is associated with enhanced cancer cell migration and stem cell self-renewal. EMT regulators, including Snail, Twist, Slug, are increased in expression in EMT and control expression of genes associated with the EMT phenotype [42].

TG2 is required for EMT

We have characterized a population of ECS cells derived from epidermal squamous cell carcinoma [3]. The present studies show that these cells, which display enhanced migration and invasion, possess elevated levels of TG2. Moreover, these cells are enriched in expression of transcription factors associated with EMT (Snail, Slug, and Twist, HIF-1α) as well as mesenchymal structural proteins including vimentin, fibronectin and N-cadherin. Consistent with a shift to mesenchymal phenotype, E-cadherin, an epithelial marker, is reduced in level. Additional studies show that TG2 knockdown results in a marked reduction in EMT marker expression and that this is associated with reduced ability of the cells to migrate to close a scratch wound and reduced movement in matrigel invasion assays. We also examined the impact of treatment with a TG2 inhibitor. NC9 is an irreversible active site inhibitor of TG2, that locks the enzyme in an open conformation [284345]. NC9 treatment of ECS cells results in decreased levels of Snail, Slug and Twist. These transcription factors suppress E-cadherin expression [46] and their decline in level is associated with increased levels of E-cadherin. NC9 inhibition of TG2 also reduces expression of vimentin, fibronectin and N-cadherin, and these changes are associated with reduced cell migration and reduced invasion through matrigel.

(Figures are not shown)

We also examined the role of TG2 in A431 squamous cell carcinoma cells derived from the vulva epithelium. TG2 is elevated in A431-derived ECS cells, as are EMT markers, and knockdown of TG2, with TG2-siRNA, reduces EMT marker expression and spheroid formation. Studies with NC9 indicate that NC9 inhibits A431 spheroid formation, EMT, migration and invasion. These studies indicate that TG2 is also required for EMT and migration and invasion in A431 cells. Based on these findings we conclude that TG2 is essential for EMT, migration and invasion, and is likely to contribute to metastasis in squamous cell carcinoma.

TG2 GTP binding activity is required for EMT

TG2 is a multifunctional enzyme that can act as a transamidase, GTP binding protein, protein disulfide isomerase, protein kinase, protein scaffold, and DNA hydrolase [21294447]. The two most studied functions are the transamidase and GTP binding functions [294447]. To identify the TG2 activity responsible for induction of EMT, we studied the ability of TG2 mutants to restore EMT in SCC13-TG2-shRNA2 cells, which express low levels of TG2 and do not express elevated levels of EMT markers or display EMT-related biological responses. These studies show that wild-type TG2 restores EMT marker expression and the ability of the cells to migrate on plastic and invade matrigel. TG2 mutants that retain GTP binding activity (TG2-C277S and TG2-W241A) also restore EMT. In contrast, TG2-R580A, which lacks GTP binding function, does not restore EMT. This evidence suggests that the GTP binding function is essential for TG2 induction of the EMT phenotype in ECS cells. Recent reports suggest that the TG2 is important for maintenance of stem cell survival in breast [91017] and ovarian [123848] cancer cells. Moreover, our findings are in agreement of those of Mehta and colleagues who reported that the TG2 GTP binding function, but not the crosslinking function, is required for TG2 induction of EMT in breast cancer cells [10].

TG2, NFκB signaling and EMT

To gain further insight into the mechanism of TG2 mediated EMT, we examined the role of NFκB. NFκB has been implicated as mediating EMT in breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancer; however, NFκB may have a unique role in epidermal squamous cell carcinoma. In keratinocytes, NFκB has been implicated in keratinocyte dysplasia and hyperproliferation [49]. However, inhibition of NFκB function has also been shown to predispose murine epidermis to cancer [50]. Here we show that TG2 levels are elevated and NFκB levels are reduced in ECS cells as compared to non-stem cancer cells, and that TG2 knockdown is associated with increased NFκB level. In addition, TG2 knockdown, or inhibition of TG2 by treatment with NC9, does not altered the nuclear/cytoplasmic distribution of NFκB. We further show that elevated levels of TG2 in spheroid culture results in a slight reduction in NFκB binding to the NFκB response element, as measured by gel mobility supershift assay. These molecular assays strongly suggest that NFκB does not mediate the action of TG2 in epidermal cancer stem cells. Moreover, knockdown of NFκB-p65 in TG2 positive cells does not result in a reduction in Snail, Slug and Twist, or mesenchymal marker proteins expression, and concurrent knockdown of TG2 and NFκB does not reduce EMT marker protein levels beyond that of TG2 knockdown alone. These findings suggest that NFκB is not an intermediary in TG2-stimulated EMT in ECS cells. This is in contrast to the required role of NFκB in mediating TG2 induction of cell survival and EMT in breast cancer cells [183233] and ovarian cancer [123738] and epidermoid carcinoma [11]. CD24+ Ovarian Cancer Cells are Enriched for Cancer Initiating Cells and Dependent on JAK2 Signaling for Growth and Metastasis

Investigators showed that CD24+ and CD133+ cells have increased tumorsphere forming capacity. CD133+ cells demonstrated a trend for increased tumor initiation while CD24+ cells vs CD24– cells, had significantly greater tumor initiation and tumor growth capacity. [Mol Cancer Ther]

D Burgos-OjedaR Wu, K McLean, Yu-Chih Chen, M Talpaz, et al.
Molec Cancer Ther May 12, 2015; 14(5)

Ovarian cancer is known to be composed of distinct populations of cancer cells, some of which demonstrate increased capacity for cancer initiation and/or metastasis. The study of human cancer cell populations is difficult due to long requirements for tumor growth, inter-patient variability and the need for tumor growth in immune-deficient mice. We therefore characterized the cancer initiation capacity of distinct cancer cell populations in a transgenic murine model of ovarian cancer. In this model, conditional deletion of Apc, Pten, and Trp53 in the ovarian surface epithelium (OSE) results in the generation of high grade metastatic ovarian carcinomas. Cell lines derived from these murine tumors express numerous putative stem cell markers including CD24, CD44, CD90, CD117, CD133 and ALDH. We show that CD24+ and CD133+ cells have increased tumor sphere forming capacity. CD133+ cells demonstrated a trend for increased tumor initiation while CD24+ cells vs CD24- cells, had significantly greater tumor initiation and tumor growth capacity. No preferential tumor initiating or growth capacity was observed for CD44+, CD90+, CD117+, or ALDH+ versus their negative counterparts. We have found that CD24+ cells, compared to CD24- cells, have increased phosphorylation of STAT3 and increased expression of STAT3 target Nanog and c-myc. JAK2 inhibition of STAT3 phosphorylation preferentially induced cytotoxicity in CD24+ cells. In vivo JAK2 inhibitor therapy dramatically reduced tumor metastases, and prolonged overall survival. These findings indicate that CD24+ cells play a role in tumor migration and metastasis and support JAK2 as a therapeutic target in ovarian cancer. EpCAM-Antibody-Labeled Noncytotoxic Polymer Vesicles for Cancer Stem Cells-Targeted Delivery of Anticancer Drug and siRNA

Researchers designed and synthesized a novel anti-epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM)-monoclonal-antibody-labeled cancer stem cells (CSCs)-targeting, noncytotoxic and pH-sensitive block copolymer vesicle as a nano-carrier of anticancer drug and siRNA. [Biomacromolecules]

Jing Chen , Qiuming Liu , Jiangang Xiao , and Jianzhong Du
Biomacromolecules May 19, 2015. (just published)

Cancer stem cells (CSCs) have the capability to initiate tumor, to sustain tumor growth, to maintain the heterogeneity of tumor, and are closely linked to the failure of chemotherapy due to their self-renewal and multilineage differentiation capability with an innate resistance to cytotoxic agents. Herein, we designed and synthesized a novel anti-EpCAM (epithelial cell adhesion molecule)-monoclonal-antibody-labeled CSCs-targeting, noncytotoxic and pH-sensitive block copolymer vesicle as a nano-carrier of anticancer drug and siRNA (to overcome CSCs drug resistance by silencing the expression of oncogenes). This vesicle shows high delivery efficacy of both anticancer drug doxorubicin hydrochloride (DOX∙HCl) and siRNA to the CSCs because it is labeled by the monoclonal antibodies to the CSCs-surface-specific marker. Compared to non-CSCs-targeting vesicles, the DOX∙HCl or siRNA loaded CSCs-targeting vesicles exhibited much better CSCs killing and tumor growth inhibition capabilities with lower toxicity to normal cells (IC50,DOX decreased by 80%), demonstrating promising potential applications in nanomedicine. Survival of Skin Cancer Stem Cells Requires the Ezh2 Polycomb Group Protein

Investigators showed that Ezh2 is required for epidermal cancer stem (ECS) cell survival, migration, invasion and tumor formation, and that this is associated with increased histone H3 trimethylation on lysine 27, a mark of Ezh2 action. They also showed that Ezh2 knockdown or treatment with Ezh2 inhibitors, GSK126 or EPZ-6438, reduced Ezh2 level and activity, leading to reduced ECS cell spheroid formation, migration, invasion and tumor growth. [Carcinogenesis]

G Adhikary, D Grun, S Balasubramanian, C Kerr, J Huang and RL Eckert
Carcinogenesis (2015)

Polycomb group (PcG) proteins, including Ezh2, are important candidate stem cell maintenance proteins in epidermal squamous cell carcinoma. We previously showed that epidermal cancer stem cells (ECS cells) represent a minority of cells in tumors, are highly enriched in Ezh2 and drive aggressive tumor formation. We now show that Ezh2 is required for ECS cell survival, migration, invasion and tumor formation, and that this is associated with increased histone H3 trimethylation on lysine 27, a mark of Ezh2 action. We also show that Ezh2 knockdown or treatment with Ezh2 inhibitors, GSK126 or EPZ-6438, reduces Ezh2 level and activity, leading to reduced ECS cell spheroid formation, migration, invasion and tumor growth. These studies indicate that epidermal squamous cell carcinoma cells contain a subpopulation of cancer stem (tumor-initiating) cells that are enriched in Ezh2, that Ezh2 is required for optimal ECS cell survival and tumor formation, and that treatment with Ezh2 inhibitors may be a strategy for reducing epidermal cancer stem cell survival and suppressing tumor formation. Inhibition of STAT3, FAK and Src mediated signaling reduces cancer stem cell load, tumorigenic potential and metastasis in breast cancer

R Thakur, R Trivedi, N Rastogi, M Singh & DP Mishra
Scientific Reports May 14, 2015; 5(10194)

Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are responsible for aggressive tumor growth, metastasis and therapy resistance. In this study, we evaluated the effects of Shikonin (Shk) on breast cancer and found its anti-CSC potential. Shk treatment decreased the expression of various epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) and CSC associated markers. Kinase profiling array and western blot analysis indicated that Shk inhibits STAT3, FAK and Src activation. Inhibition of these signaling proteins using standard inhibitors revealed that STAT3 inhibition affected CSCs properties more significantly than FAK or Src inhibition. We observed a significant decrease in cell migration upon FAK and Src inhibition and decrease in invasion upon inhibition of STAT3, FAK and Src. Combined inhibition of STAT3 with Src or FAK reduced the mammosphere formation, migration and invasion more significantly than the individual inhibitions. These observations indicated that the anti-breast cancer properties of Shk are due to its potential to inhibit multiple signaling proteins. Shk also reduced the activation and expression of STAT3, FAK and Src in vivo and reduced tumorigenicity, growth and metastasis of 4T1 cells. Collectively, this study underscores the translational relevance of using a single inhibitor (Shk) for compromising multiple tumor-associated signaling pathways to check cancer metastasis and stem cell load.

Breast cancer is the most common endocrine cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women. In spite of the diverse therapeutic regimens available for breast cancer treatment, development of chemo-resistance and disease relapse is constantly on the rise. The most common cause of disease relapse and chemo-resistance is attributed to the presence of stem cell like cells (or CSCs) in tumor tissues12. CSCs represent a small population within the tumor mass, capable of inducing independent tumors in vivo and are hard to eradicate2. Multiple signaling pathways including Receptor Tyrosine Kinase (RTKs), Wnt/β-catenin, TGF-β, STAT3, Integrin/FAK, Notch and Hedgehog signaling pathway helps in maintaining the stem cell programs in normal as well as in cancer cells3456. These pathways also support the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and expression of various drug transporters in cancer cells. Cells undergoing EMT are known to acquire stem cell and chemo-resistant traits7. Thus, the induction of EMT programs, drug resistance and stem cell like properties are interlinked7. Commonly used anti-cancer drugs eradicate most of the tumor cells, but CSCs due to their robust survival mechanisms remain viable and lead to disease relapse8. Studies carried out on patient derived tumor samples and in vivo mouse models have demonstrated that the CSCs metastasize very efficiently than non-CSCs91011. Therefore, drugs capable of compromising CSCs proliferation and self-renewal are urgently required as the inhibition of CSC will induce the inhibition of tumor growth, chemo-resistance, metastasis and metastatic colonization in breast cancer.

Shikonin, a natural dietary component is a potent anti-cancer compound1213. Previous studies have shown that Shk inhibits the cancer cell growth, migration, invasion and tumorigenic potential12. Shk has good bioavailability, less toxicity and favorable pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic profiles in vivo12. In a recent report, it was shown that the prolonged exposure of Shk to cancer cells does not cause chemo-resistance13.Other studies have shown that it inhibits the expression of various key inflammatory cytokines and associated signaling pathways1214. It decreases the expression of TNFα, IL12, IL6, IL1β, IL2, IFNγ, inhibits ERK1/2 and JNK signaling and reduces the expression of NFκB and STAT3 transcription factors1415. It inhibits proteasome and also modulates the cancer cell metabolism by inhibiting tumor specific pyurvate kinase-M214,1516. Skh causes cell cycle arrest and induces necroptosis in various cancer types14. Shk also inhibits the expression of MMP9, integrin β1 and decreases invasive potential of cancer cells1417. Collectively, Shk modulates various signaling pathways and elicits anti-cancer responses in a variety of cancer types.

In breast cancer, Shk has been reported to induce the cell death and inhibit cell migration, but the mechanisms responsible for its effect are not well studied1819. Signaling pathways modulated by Shk in cancerous and non-cancerous models have previously been shown important for breast cancer growth, metastasis and tumorigenicity20. Therefore in the current study, we investigated the effect of Shk on various hallmark associated properties of breast cancer cells, including migration, invasion, clonogenicity, cancer stem cell load and in vivo tumor growth and metastasis.

Shk inhibits cancer hallmarks in breast cancer cell lines and primary cells

We first examined the effect of Shk on various cancer hallmark capabilities (proliferation, invasion, migration, colony and mammosphere forming potential) in breast cancer cells. MTT assay was used to find out effect of Shk on viability of breast cancer cells. Semi-confluent cultures were exposed to various concentrations of Shk for 24 h. Shk showed specific anti-breast cancer activity with IC50 values ranging from 1.38 μM to 8.3 μM in MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468, BT-20, MCF7, T47D, SK-BR-3 and 4T1 cells (Fig. 1A). Whereas the IC50 values in non-cancerous HEK-293 and human PBMCs were significantly higher indicating that it is relatively safe for normal cells (Fig. S1A). Shk was found to induce necroptotic cell death consistent with previous reports (Fig. S1B). Treatment of breast cancer cells for 24 h with 1.25 μM, 2.5 μM and 5.0 μM of Shk significantly reduced their colony forming potential (Fig. 1B). To check the effect of Shk on the heterogeneous cancer cell population, we tested it on patient derived primary breast cancer cells. Shk reduced the viability and colony forming potential of primary breast cancer cells in dose dependent manner (Fig. 1C,D). Further we checked its effects on migration and invasion of breast cancer cells. Shk (2.5 μM) significantly inhibited the migration of MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468, MCF7 and 4T1 cells (Fig. 1E). It also inhibited the cell invasion in dose dependent manner (Fig. 1F and S1CS1DS1E,S1F). We further examined its effect on mammosphere formation. MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468, MCF7 and 4T1 cell mammosphere cultures were grown in presence or absence of 1.25 μM, 2.5 μM and 5.0 μM Shk for 24 h. After 8 days of culture, a dose dependent decrease in the mammosphere forming potential of these cells was observed (Figs. 1G,H). Collectively, these results indicated that Shk effectively inhibits the various hallmarks associated with aggressive breast cancer.

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Figure 1: Shk inhibits multiple cancer hallmarks

Shk reduces cancer stem cell load in breast cancer

As Shk exhibited strong anti-mammosphere forming potential; therefore it was further examined for its anti-cancer stem cell (CSC) properties. Cancer stem cell loads in breast cancer cells were assessed using Aldefluor assay which measures ALDH1 expression. MDA-MB 231 cells with the highest number of ALDH1+ cells were selected for further studies (Fig. S2A). We also checked the correlation between ALDH1 expression and mammosphere formation. Sorted ALDH1+ cells were subjected to mammosphere cultures. ALDH1+ cells formed highest number of mammospheres compared to ALDH1-/low and parent cell population, indicating that ALDH1+ cells are enriched in CSCs (Fig. S2B). Shk reduced the Aldefluor positive cells in MDA-MB 231 cells after 24 h of treatment (Fig. 2A,B). Next, we examined the effect of Shk on the expression of stem cell (Sox2, Oct3/4, Nanog, AldhA1 and c-Myc) and EMT (Snail, Slug, ZEB1, Twist, β-Catenin) markers, associated with the sustenance of breast CSCs. Shk (2.5 μM) treatment for 24 h reduced the expression of these markers (Fig. 2C and S2D). Shk also reduced protein expression of these markers in dose dependent manner (Fig. 2D,E and S2C).

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Figure 2: Shk decreases stem cell load in breast cancer cells and enriched CD44+,CD24−/low breast cancer stem cells.

To further confirm anti-CSC properties of Shk, we checked the effect of shikonin on the load of CD44+ CD24− breast CSCs in MCF7 cells grown on matrigel. Shikonin reduced CD44+ CD24− cell load in dose dependent manner after 24 h of treatment (Fig S2E). We also tested its effects on the enriched CSC population. CD44+ CD24− cells were enriched from MCF7 cells using MagCellect CD24− CD44+ Breast CSC Isolation Kit (Fig. S2F). Enriched CSCs formed highest number of mammosphere in comparison to parent MCF7 cell population or negatively selected CD24+ cells (Fig. S2G). Enriched CSCs were treated with indicated doses of Shk (0.625 μM, 1.25 μM and 2.5 μM) for 24 h and were either analyzed for ALDH1 positivity or subjected to colony or mammosphere formation. 2.5 μM dose of Shk reduced ALDH1+ cells by 50% and inhibited colony and mammosphere formation (Fig. S2H2F2G and 2H). Shk also reduced the mRNA expression of CSC markers in CD44+ CD24− cells and patient derived primary cancer cells (Fig. 2I,J). These results collectively indicated that Shk inhibits CSC load and associated programs in breast cancer.

Shk is a potent inhibitor of STAT3 and poorly inhibits FAK and Src

To identify the molecular mechanism responsible for anti-cancer properties of Shk, we used a human phospho-kinase antibody array to study a subset of phosphorylation events in MDA-MB 231 cells after 6h of treatment with 2.5 μM Shk. Amongst the 46 phospho-antibodies spotted on the array, the relative extent of phosphorylation of three proteins decreased to about ≳ 2 fold (STAT3, 3.3 fold; FAK, 2.5 fold and Src, 1.8 fold) upon Shk treatment (Fig. 3A,B). These proteins (STAT3, FAK and Src) are known to regulate CSC proliferation and self renewal212223. Therefore, we focused on these proteins and the result of kinase-array was confirmed by western blotting. Shk effectively inhibits STAT3 at early time point (1 h) while activation of FAK and Src decreased on or after 3 h (Fig. 3C) confirming Shk as a potent inhibitor of STAT3. Shk also reduced the protein expression of STAT3, FAK and Src at 24 h (Fig. 3C).

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Figure 3. Shk inhibits STAT3, FAK and Src signaling pathways.

We also observed that Shk does not inhibit JAK2 at initial time-points (Fig. 3C). This raised a possibility that Shk either regulates STAT3 independent of JAK2 or it binds directly to STAT3. To check the first probability, we activated STAT3 by treating the cells with IL6 (100 ng ml−1) for 1 h followed by treatment with Shk (2.5 μM) for 1 h. Both immunofluorescence and western-blotting results showed that Shk inhibited activated STAT3 without inhibiting JAK2 (Fig. S3AS3B) confirming that Shk inhibits JAK2 mediated activation of STAT3 possibly by binding directly to STAT3. For further confirmation, we performed an in silico molecular docking analysis to examine binding of Shk with the STAT3 SH2 domain. In a major conformational cluster, Shk occupied Lys-707, Lys-709 and Phe-710 binding sites in the STAT3 SH2 domain similar to the STAT3 standard inhibitor S3I-201 (Fig. S3C and S3D). The binding energy of Shk to STAT3 was −4.20 kcal mol−1. Collectively, these results showed that Shk potently inhibits STAT3 activation and also attenuates FAK and Src activation.

STAT3, Src and FAK are differentially expressed and activated in breast CSCs (BCSCs)

STAT3 and FAK are known to play an important role in proliferation and self-renewal of CSCs in various cancer types including breast cancer212224. Src also support CSC phenotype in some cancer types, but there are limited reports of its involvement in breast cancer25. Therefore, we checked the expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src in CSCs and non-CSCs. Here we used two methods to enrich the CSCs and non-CSCs. In the first method, the MDA-MB 231 cells were subjected to mammosphere formation for 96 h. After 96 h, mammosphere and non-mammosphere forming cells were clearly visible (Fig. 4A). These mammosphere and non-mammosphere forming cells were separated by using a 70 micron cell strainer. Mammospheres were subjected to two subculture cycles to enrich CSCs. With each passage, the viable single cells (non-mammosphere forming cells) and mammospheres were collected in RIPA lysis buffer and western blotting was done (Fig. 4B). We found that the activation and expression of the STAT3, FAK and Src is higher in enriched mammosphere cultures (Fig. 4C). In the second method, CD44+ CD24− cells were isolated from MCF7 cultures using MagCellect Breast CSC Isolation Kit. STAT3, FAK and Src activation and their mRNA and protein expression were assessed in enriched CSCs and were compared to parent MCF7 cell population. STAT3, FAK and Src all were differentially activated in CSCs (Fig. 4E). High mRNA as well as protein expressions of all the three genes was also observed in CSCs (Fig. 4D,E). Collectively, these results indicate that STAT3, FAK and Src are over expressed and activated in BCSCs.

Figure 4: STAT3, FAK and Src are differentially activated and expressed in breast cancer cells.

  • Representative picture indicating mammosphere and single suspended cells. (B) Schematic outline of mammosphere enrichment. (C) Protein expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src was determined in single suspended cells (non-mammosphere forming cells) and mammospheres by western blot. The full size blots corresponding to the cropped blot images are given in  S10. (D) Gene expression of STAT3, FAK and Src was determined in MCF7 parent population and CD44+ CD24−/low MCF7 cells using PCR. The full agarose gel images corresponding to the cropped images are given in Fig. S10. (E) Protein expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src was in CD44+ 24− cells and parent population.
STAT3, FAK and Src are differentially activated and expressed in breast cancer cells.

STAT3, FAK and Src are differentially activated and expressed in breast cancer cells.

STAT3 is important for mammosphere formation and CSC programs in breast cancer

As our results indicated that the expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src is high in BCSCs and Shk is capable of inhibiting these signaling proteins; therefore to find out functional relevance of each protein and associated effects on their pharmacological inhibition by Shk, we used specific inhibitors against these three. Effect of these inhibitors was first tested on the mammosphere forming potential of MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7 cells. A drastic reduction in the mammosphere formation was observed upon STAT3 inhibition. FAK and Src inhibition also reduced the primary and secondary mammosphere formation but STAT3 inhibition showed most potent effect (Fig. 5A and S4). Further, we also checked the effect of these inhibitors on the expression of various CSC and EMT related markers in MDA-MB 231 cells. STAT3 inhibition decreased the expression of most of the CSC and EMT markers (Fig. 5B). These two findings indicated that STAT3 inhibition is more effective in reducing mammosphere forming potential and weakens major CSC programs and the anti-CSC potential of Shk is possibly due to its strong STAT3 inhibitory effect.
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STAT3, FAK and Src activation status correlates with mammosphere forming potential in breast cancer

STAT3, FAK and Src activation status correlates with mammosphere forming potential in breast cancer

Figure 5: STAT3, FAK and Src activation status correlates with mammosphere forming potential in breast cancer.

(A) Bar graph represents number of mammospheres formed from 2500 cells in presence and absence of indicated treatments. MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7 24 h mammosphere cultures were treated with Shk (2.5 μM), FAK inhibitor (FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM), Src inhibitor (AZM 475271; 10 μM) and STAT3 inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM). After 24 h, treatments were removed and cells were allowed to grow in fresh mammosphere culture media for 8 days. (B) Expression of various stem cell and EMT related transcription factors and markers were detected using western blotting in MDA-MB 231 cells with or without indicated treatments. The full size blots corresponding to the cropped blot images are given in Fig. S10. (C) MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7 cells were pre-treated with either IL6 (100 ng ml−1), Fibronectin (1 μg ml−1) or EGF (25 ng ml−1) for two population doublings and subjected to mammosphere formation. Bar graph represents average of three independent experiments. (D) MCF7 cells were pre-treated with either IL6 (100 ng ml−1), Fibronectin (1 μg ml−1) or EGF (25 ng ml−1) for two population doublings and subjected to mammosphere formation. After 24 h, cells were treated with DMSO (untreated) or Shk (treated) as indicated in the bar graph. Data are shown as the mean ±SD. (*) p < 0.05 and (**) p < 0.01.

To further check the involvement of these pathways in CSCs, we cultured MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7 cells in the presence of either IL6 (100ng ml−1), EGF (25 ng ml−1) or Fibronectin (1 μg ml−1) coated surface for two population doublings. Cells were then subjected to mammosphere formation. In IL6 pre-treated cultures, there was a sharp rise in mammosphere formation, indicating that the STAT3 activation shifts CSC and non-CSC dynamics towards CSCs (Fig. 5C). IL6 is previously known to induce the conversion of non-CSC to CSC via STAT3 activation26. In MCF7 cells, mammosphere forming potential after IL6 pre-treatment increased nearly by three fold. Therefore, we further checked the effectiveness of Shk on mammosphere forming potential in pre-treated MCF7 cells. It was found that Shk inhibits mammosphere formation most effectively in IL6 pre-treated cultures (Fig. 5D). However, in EGF and Fibronectin pre-treated cultures, Shk was relatively less effective. This was possibly due to its weak FAK and Src inhibitory potential. Collectively, these results illustrated that STAT3 activation is significantly correlated with the mammosphere forming potential of breast cancer cells and its inhibition by a standard inhibitor or Shk potently reduce the mammosphere formation.

Shk inhibit CSCs load by disrupting the STAT3-Oct3/4 axis

In breast cancer, STAT3 mediated expression of Oct3/4 is a major regulator of CSC self-renewal2627. As we observed that both Shk and STAT3 inhibitors decreased the Oct3/4 expression (Figs. 2C and 5B), we further checked the effect of STAT3 activation on ALDH1+ CSCs and Oct3/4 expression. On IL6 pre-treatment, number of ALDH1+ cells increased in all three (MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7) cancer cells (Fig. 6A). MCF7 cells showed highest increase. Therefore, to check the effect of STAT3 inhibition on CSC load, we incubated IL6 pre-treated MCF7 cells with Shk and STAT3 inhibitor for 24 h and analyzed for ALDH1 positivity. It was observed that both Shk and STAT3 inhibitor reduced the IL6 induced ALDH1 positivity from 10% to < 2% (Fig. 6B). These results suggested that Shk induced inhibition of STAT3 and decrease in BCSC load is interlinked. We further checked the effect of STAT3 activation status on Oct3/4 expression in MDA-MB 231, MDA-MB 468 and MCF7 cells. We observed that expression of Oct3/4 increases with the increase in STAT3 activation (Fig. 6C–E).

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Figure 6: STAT3 activation status and its effect on cancer stem cell load

STAT3 transcriptional activity is important in maintaining CSC programs2829. Therefore, we also examined the effect of Shk on STAT3 promoter activity. STAT3 reporter assay was performed in presence of IL6 and Shk; it was found that Shk reduced the promoter activity of STAT3 in a dose dependent manner (Fig. S5). Collectively, these results showed that Shk mediated STAT3 inhibition are responsible for decrease in CSC load and Oct3/4 associated stem cell programs.

Shk inhibits mammosphere formation, migration and invasion through inhibition of STAT3, FAK and Src in breast cancer cells

As the earlier results (Fig. 1) showed that Shk inhibits cell migration and invasion in breast cancer cells, we further examined the effect of STAT3, FAK and Src inhibitors on cell migration and invasion in MDA-MB 231 cells. It was found that STAT3 inhibitor poorly inhibits cell migration while both Src and FAK inhibitors were effective in reducing cell migration (Fig. 7A). All the three inhibitors decreased the cell invasion and MMP9 expression significantly (Fig. 7B and S6). It was also observed that effect of all these inhibitors, except STAT3 inhibitor on mammosphere formation and FAK inhibitor on cell migration, were not comparable to that of Shk. Shk inhibited all these properties more effectively than individual inhibition of STAT3, FAK and Src. This made us to assume that the ability of Shk to inhibit multiple signaling molecules simultaneously is the reason behind its potent anti-cancer effect. To check this notion, we combined STAT3, FAK and Src inhibitors with each other and examined the effect of combinations on invasion, migration and mammosphere forming potential in MDA-MB 231 cells. We observed further decrease in cell migration and invasion on combining STAT3 and FAK, STAT3 and Src, or FAK and Src (Figs. 7A,B). Combination of FAK and Src was not very effective in inhibiting mammosphere formation in MDA-MB 231 cells and CD44+ CD24− MCF7 CSCs. However, their combination with STAT3 decreased the mammosphere forming potential equivalent to that of Shk (Fig. 7C,D). We also compared the mammosphere forming potential of Shk with Salinomycin (another anti-CSC agent) and found that at 2.5 μM dose of Shk was almost two times more potent than Salinomycin (Fig. S7). Collectively, these results indicated that Shk inhibits multiple signaling proteins (STAT3, FAK and Src) to compromise various aggressive breast cancer hallmarks.

Figure 7: Combination of FAK, Src and STAT3 inhibitors is more potent than individual inhibition against various cancer hallmarks.



  • Cell migration and (B) cell invasion potential of MDA-MB 231 cells was assessed in the presence of Shk (2.5 μM), FAK inhibitor (FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM), Src inhibitor (AZM 475271; 10 μM) and STAT3 inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM). Various combinations of these inhibitors were also used STAT3+FAK inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM + FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM), STAT3 + Src Inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM + AZM 475271; 10 μM) and FAK+Src Inhibitor (FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM + AZM 475271; 10 μM). Cell migration and cell invasion was assessed through scratch cell migration assay and transwell invasion after 24 h of treatments. (C,D) Mammosphere forming potential of MDA-MB 231 cells and CD44+ CD24−/low enriched MCF7 cells was assessed in presence of similar combination of STAT3+FAK inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM + FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM), STAT3 + Src Inhibitor (WP1066; 10 μM+ AZM 475271; 10 μM) and FAK + Src Inhibitor (FAK inhibitor 14; 2.5 μM + AZM 475271; 10 μM). Cells were subjected to mammosphere cultures for 24 h and treated with the indicated inhibitors for next 24 h, followed by media change and growth of mammospheres were monitored for next 8 days. Data are shown as the mean ±SD. (**) p < 0.01.

Shk inhibits breast cancer growth, metastasis and decreases tumorigenicity

To explore whether Shk may have therapeutic potential for breast cancer treatment in vivo, we tested Shk against 4T1-induced breast cancer syngenic mouse model. 4T1 cells (mouse breast cancer cells) are capable of growing fast and metastasize efficiently in vivo30. Prior to the in vivo experiments, we checked the effect of Shk on ALDH1 positivity and on activation of STAT3, FAK and Src in 4T1 cells in vitro. Shk effectively decreased the ALDH1+ cells and inhibited STAT3, FAK and Src in 4T1 cells in vitro (Fig. S8A and S8B). For in vivo tumor generation, 1 × 106 cells were injected subcutaneously in the fourth nipple mammary fat pad of BALB/c mice. When the average size of tumors reached around 50 mm3, mice were divided into three groups, vehicle and two Shk treated groups each received either 2.5 mg Kg−1 or 5.0 mg Kg−1 Shk. Shk was administered via the intraperitoneal injection on every alternate day. It significantly suppressed the tumor growth in 4T1 induced syngenic mouse model (Fig. 8A). The average reduction in 4T1 tumor growth was 49.78% and 89.73% in 2.5 mg Kg−1 and 5.0 mg Kg−1 groups respectively compared with the vehicle treated group (Fig. 8A). No considerable change in body weight of the treated group animals was observed (Fig. S9A). We further examined the effect of Shk on the tumor initiating potential of breast cancer cells. 4T1 induced tumors were excised from the control and treatment groups on the second day after 4th dose of Shk was administered. Tumors were dissociated; cells were allowed to adhere and then re-injected into new animals for secondary tumor formation. Growth of secondary tumors was monitored till day 15 post-reinjection. Shk treated groups showed a marked decrease in secondary tumor formation (Fig. 8D). We also observed a drastic reduction in the number of metastatic nodules in the lungs of treatment group animals (Fig. 8F). The reduction in the metastatic load was not proportional to the decrease in tumor sizes; however within the treatment group, some animals with small tumors were carrying higher number of metastatic nodules. As FAK is an important mediator of cancer metastasis and metastatic colonization, we further examined the effects of Shk on metastatic colonization. For this, 1 × 105 4T1 cells were injected to BALB/c mice through tail vein. Animals were divided into three groups, as indicated above. Shk and vehicle were administered through intraperitoneal injections at alternate days starting from the 2nd day post tail vein injections till 33rd day. The average reduction in total number of metastatic nodules was 88.6% – 90.5% in Shk treated mice compared to vehicle control (Fig. 8F). An inset picture (Fig. 8A lower panel) represents lung morphology of vehicle control and treated groups. We further examined the activation and expression status of STAT3, FAK and Src between vehicle control and treated group tumors. There were low expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src in treated tumors as compared to the vehicle control (Fig. 8B,C). Similar trend was observed in ALDH1 expressions (Fig. 8B). Further, the mice tumor sections were subjected to immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence and hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining to study histology and expression of key proteins being examined in this study. Fig. 8G shows representative images of H&E staining, proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL), STAT3 and Oct3/4 immunostaining. PCNA expression was low while TUNEL positive cells were high in tumor tissues of Shk treated groups. STAT3 and Oct3/4 expression was low in Shk treated groups. These results collectively demonstrated that Shk modulates the expression and activation of STAT3, FAK and Src in vivo and is effective in suppressing tumorigenic potential and metastasis in syngenic mouse model.

Figure 8: Shk inhibits breast cancer growth, tumorigenicity and metastasis in vivo.

Shk inhibits breast cancer growth, tumorigenicity and metastasis in vivo

Shk inhibits breast cancer growth, tumorigenicity and metastasis in vivo

  • Shk inhibited 4T1 tumor growth. Bar graph represents the average tumor volumes in vehicle control and Shk treated tumor bearing mice (n = 6). (*) p < 0.05 and (**) p < 0.01. Inset picture of upper panel represents tumor sizes and lower pane represents lung morphology in vehicle control and Shk treatment groups. (B) Western blot examination of indicated proteins for their expression and activation in vehicle control and treated tumor groups. The full size blots corresponding to the cropped blot images are given in Fig. S10. (C) Gene expression of stem cell and EMT markers in tumor tissues excised from the vehicle control and Shk treated groups (n = 3). (D) Number of secondary tumors formed after injecting indicated cell dilutions from Vehicle treated and Shk treated 4T1 tumors. (E) Number of lung nodules formed in mice injected with 4T1 mouse mammary tumor cells in the mammary fat pad and administered with 2.5 mg Kg−1 Shk or vehicle control on every alternate day for 3 weeks (n = 6). (F) Number of lung nodules in mice injected with 4T1 mouse mammary tumor cells through tail vein and administered with 2.5 mg Kg−1 Shk or vehicle control on every alternate day for 3 weeks. (n = 8) (G) Representative panel of the histological H&E staining, immunofluorescence staining for the STAT3, Oct3/4, cell proliferation marker PCNA and DNA damage indicator-TUNEL staining of tumor sections from vehicle and treatment groups.

Recent studies have shown that aggressiveness, therapy resistance and disease relapse in breast cancer is attributed to a small population of CSCs involved in continuous self-renewal and differentiation through signaling pathways similar to that of the normal stem cells31. Therapeutic targeting of CSCs therefore, has profound clinical implications for cancer treatment31. Recent studies indicated that therapies / agents targeting both differentiated cancer cells and CSCs may possibly have significant therapeutic advantages32. Therefore, it is imperative to look for novel therapeutic agents with lesser side effects urgently for effective targeting of CSCs. In search of novel, nontoxic anti-CSC agents, attention has been focused on natural agents in recent times33,34. In this study, we have used a natural napthoquinone compound, Shk with established antitumorigenic, favorable pharmacokinetic and toxicity profiles and report for the first time its potent anti-CSC properties. Shk significantly inhibits breast cancer cell proliferation in vitroex vivoand in vivo. It decreases the cell migration and invasion of breast cancer cells in vivo, as well as inhibits tumorigenicity, metastasis and metastatic colonization in a syngenic mouse model of breast cancer in vivo. These finding suggest a strong potential of Shk in breast cancer therapy.

We assessed the effect of Shk on the CSC load in breast cancer cells through various functional assays (tumorsphere in vitro and syngenic mouse model of breast cancer in vivo) and quantification of specific stem cell markers. In breast cancer, CD44+ CD24− cells and ALDH1+ cells are considered to be BCSCs2125. Shk significantly decreased the mammosphere formation (Fig. 1HS1G and 2H), ALDH1+ cell and CD44+ CD24− cell loads in vitro (Fig. 2BS2E and S2H). It also reduced the expression of CSC markers (Oct3/4, Sox2, Nanog, c-Myc and Aldh1) in vivo andin vitro (Fig. 2C,DS2C and S2D). These genes are known to regulate stem cell programs and in cancer, they are established promoters and regulators of CSC phenotype353637383940. Decrease in the expression of these genes on Shk treatment indicates its potential to suppress CSC programs. Tumor initiating potential (tumorigenicity) is the bona fide measure of CSCs. Reduction in the tumorigenic potential of cells isolated form Shk treated tumors indicates in vivoanti-CSC effects of Shk.

We further demonstrated that Shk is a potent inhibitor of STAT3 and it also inhibits FAK and Src (Fig. 3A–C). Its STAT3 inhibitory property was found to be responsible for its anti-CSC effects (Figs. 6B and 7B). STAT3 and FAK inhibitors are previously known to compromise CSC growth41,42. Here, we found that pharmacological inhibition of STAT3 was more effective in compromising CSC load than FAK and Src inhibitions (Fig. 5A). STAT3 activation through IL6 increases mammosphere formation more significantly than Src and FAK activation through EGF and Fibronectin (Fig. 5C). This indicates that IL6-STAT3 axis is a key regulator of BCSC dynamics. Ovatodiolide Sensitizes Aggressive Breast Cancer Cells to Doxorubicin Anticancer Activity, Eliminates Their Cancer Stem Cell-Like Phenotype, and Reduces Doxorubicin-Associated Toxicity

Investigators evaluated the usability of ovatodiolide (Ova) in sensitizing triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) cells to doxorubicin (Doxo), cytotoxicity, so as to reduce Doxo effective dose and consequently its adverse effects. Ova-sensitized TNBC cells also lost their cancer stem cell-like phenotype evidenced by significant dissolution and necrosis of formed mammospheres, as well as their terminal differentiation. [Cancer Lett] Glabridin Inhibits Cancer Stem Cell-Like Properties of Human Breast Cancer Cells: An Epigenetic Regulation of miR-148a/SMAd2 Signaling

The authors report that glabridin (GLA) attenuated the cancer stem cell (CSC)-like properties through microRNA-148a (miR-148a)/transforming growth factor beta-SMAD2 signal pathway in vitro and in vivo. In MDA-MB-231 and Hs-578T breast cancer cell lines, GLA enhanced the expression of miR-148a through DNA demethylation. [Mol Carcinog] Ginsenoside Rh2 Inhibits Cancer Stem-Like Cells in Skin Squamous Cell Carcinoma

The effects of ginsenoside Rh2 (GRh2) on Lgr5-positive cancer stem cells (CSCs) were determined by flow cytometry and by tumor sphere formation. Scientists found that GRh2 dose-dependently reduced skin squamous cell carcinoma viability, possibly through reduced the number of Lgr5-positive CSCs. [Cell Physiol Biochem]

Liu S. Chen M. Li P. Wu Y. Chang C. Qiu Y. Cao L. Liu Z. Jia C.
Cell Physiol Biochem 2015;36:499-508

Background/Aims: Treatments targeting cancer stem cells (CSCs) are most effective cancer therapy, whereas determination of CSCs is challenging. We have recently reported that Lgr5-positive cells are cancer stem cells (CSCs) in human skin squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Ginsenoside Rh2 (GRh2) has been shown to significantly inhibit growth of some types of cancers, whereas its effects on the SCC have not been examined. Methods: Here, we transduced human SCC cells with lentivirus carrying GFP reporter under Lgr5 promoter. The transduced SCC cells were treated with different doses of GRh2, and then analyzed cell viability by CCK-8 assay and MTT assay. The effects of GRh2 on Lgr5-positive CSCs were determined by fow cytometry and by tumor sphere formation. Autophagy-associated protein and β-catenin were measured by Western blot. Expression of short hairpin small interfering RNA (shRNA) for Atg7 and β-catenin were used to inhibit autophagy and β-catenin signaling pathway, respectively, as loss-of-function experiments. Results: We found that GRh2 dose-dependently reduced SCC viability, possibly through reduced the number of Lgr5-positive CSCs. GRh2 increased autophagy and reduced β-catenin signaling in SCC cells. Inhibition of autophagy abolished the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin and cell viability, while increasing β-catenin abolished the effects of GRh2 on autophagy and cell viability. Conclusion: Taken together, our data suggest that GRh2 inhibited SCC growth, possibly through reduced the number of Lgr5-positive CSCs. This may be conducted through an interaction Carcinoma account for more than 80% of all types of cancer worldwide, and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most frequent carcinoma. Skin SCC causes a lot of mortality yearly, which requires a better understanding of the molecular carcinogesis of skin SCC for developing efficient therapy [1,2]. Ginsenoside Rh2 (GRh2) is a characterized component in red ginseng, and has proven therapeutic effects on inflammation [3] and a number of cancers [4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14], whereas its effects on the skin SCC have not been examined.

Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are cancer cells with great similarity to normal stem cells, e.g., the ability to give rise to various cell types in a particular cancer [15,16]. CSCs are highly tumorigenic, compared to other non-CSCs. CSCs appear to persist in tumors as a distinct population and CSCs are believed to be responsible for cancer relapse and metastasis after primary tumor resection [15,16,17,18]. Recently, the appreciation of the critical roles of CSCs in cancer therapy have been continuously increasing, although the identification of CSCs in a particular cancer is still challenging.

To date, different cell surface proteins have been used to isolate CSCs from a variety of cancers by flow cytometry. Among these markers for identification of CSCs, the most popular ones are prominin-1 (CD133), side population (SP) and increased activity of aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). CD133 is originally detected in hematopoietic stem cells, endothelial progenitor cells and neuronal and glial stem cells. Later on, CD133 has been shown to be expressed in the CSCs from some tumors [19,20,21,22,23], but with exceptions [24]. SP is a sub-population of cells that efflux chemotherapy drugs, which accounts for the resistance of cancer to chemotherapy. Hoechst (HO) has been experimentally used for isolation of SP cells, while the enrichment of CSCs by SP appears to be limited [25]. Increased activity of ALDH, a detoxifying enzyme responsible for the oxidation of intracellular aldehydes [26,27], has also been used to identify CSCs, using aldefluor assay [28,29]. However, ALDH has also been detected in other cell types, which creates doubts on the purity of CSCs using ALDH method [30,31]. Moreover, all these methods appear to be lack of cancer specificity.

The Wnt target gene Lgr5 has been recently identified as a stem cell marker of the intestinal epithelium, and of the hair follicle [32,33]. Recently, we reported that Lgr5 may be a potential CSC marker for skin SCC [34]. We detected extremely high Lgr5 levels in the resected skin SCC specimen from the patients. In vitro, Lgr5-positive SCC cells grew significantly faster than Lgr5-negative cells, and the fold increase in growth of Lgr5-positive vs Lgr5-negative cells is significantly higher than SP vs non-SP, or ALDH-high vs ALDH-low, or CD133-positive vs CD133-negative cells. Elimination of Lgr5-positive SCC cells completely inhibited cancer cell growth in vitro.

Here, we transduced human SCC cells with lentivirus carrying GFP reporter under Lgr5 promoter. The transduced SCC cells were treated with different doses of GRh2, and then analyzed cell viability by CCK-8 assay and MTT assay. The effects of GRh2 on Lgr5-positive CSCs were determined by flow cytometry and by tumor sphere formation. Autophagy-associated protein and β-catenin were measured by Western blot. Expression of short hairpin small interfering RNA (shRNA) for autophagy-related protein 7 (Atg7) and β-catenin were used to inhibit autophagy and β-catenin signaling pathway, respectively, as loss-of-function experiments. Atg7 was identified based on homology to Pichia pastoris GSA7 and Saccharomyces cerevisiae APG7. In the yeast, the protein appears to be required for fusion of peroxisomal and vacuolar membranes. The protein shows homology to the ATP-binding and catalytic sites of the E1 ubiquitin activating enzymes. Atg7 is a mediator of autophagosomal biogenesis, and is a putative regulator of autophagic function [35,36,37,38]. We found that GRh2 dose-dependently reduced SCC viability, possibly through reduced the number of Lgr5-positive CSCs. GRh2 increased autophagy and reduced β-catenin signaling in SCC cells. Inhibition of autophagy abolished the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin and cell viability, while increasing β-catenin abolished the effects of GRh2 on autophagy and cell viability.

Transduction of SCC cells with GFP under Lgr5 promoter

We have recently shown that Lgr5 is CSC marker for skin SCC [34]. In order to examine the role of GRh2 on SCC cells, as well as a possible effect on CSCs, we transduced human skin SCC cells A431 [34] with a lentivirus carrying GFP reporter under Lgr5 promoter (Fig. 1A). The Lgr5-positive cells were green fluorescent in culture (Fig. 1B), and could be analyzed or isolated by flow cytometry, based on GFP (Fig. 1C).

(not shown)

Fig. 1. Transduction of SCC cells with GFP under Lgr5 promoter. (A) The structure of lentivirus carrying GFP reporter under Lgr5 promoter. (B) The pLgr5-GFP-transduced A431 cells in culture. Lgr5-positive cells were green fluorescent. Nuclear staining was done by DAPI. (C) Representative flow chart for analyzing pLgr5-GFP-transduced A431 cells by flow cytometry based on GFP. Gated cells were Lgr5-positive cells. Scar bar is 20µm.

GRh2 dose-dependently inhibits SCC cell growth

Then, we examined the effect of GRh2 on the viability of SCC cells. We gave GRh2 at different doses (0.01mg/ml, 0.1mg/ml and 1mg/ml) to the cultured pLgr5-GFP-transduced A431 cells. We found that from 0.01mg/ml to 1mg/ml, GRh2 dose-dependently deceased the cell viability in either a CCK-8 assay (Fig. 2A), or a MTT assay (Fig. 2B). Next, we questioned whether GRh2 may have a specific effect on CSCs in SCC cells. Thus, we analyzed GFP+ cells, which represent Lgr5-positive CSCs in pLgr5-GFP-transduced A431 cells after GRh2 treatment. We found that GRh2 dose-dependently deceased the percentage of GFP+ cells, by representative flow charts (Fig. 2C), and by quantification (Fig. 2D). We also examined the capability of the GRh2-treated cells in the formation of tumor sphere. We found that GRh2 dose-dependently deceased the formation of tumor sphere-like structure, by quantification (Fig. 2E), and by representative images (Fig. 2F). Together, these data suggest that GRh2 dose-dependently inhibited SCC cell growth, possibly through inhibition of CSCs.

Fig. 2. GRh2 dose-dependently inhibits SCC cell growth. We gave GRh2 at different doses (0.01mg/ml, 0.1mg/ml and 1mg/ml) to the cultured pLgr5-GFP-transduced A431 cells. (A-B) GRh2 dose-dependently deceased the cell viability in either a CCK-8 assay (A), or a MTT assay (B). (C-D) GFP+ cells after GRh2 treatment were analyzed by flow cytometry, showing that GRh2 dose-dependently deceased the percentage of GFP+ cells, by representative flow charts (C), and by quantification (D). The capability of the GRh2-treated cells to form tumor sphere-like structures was examined, shown by quantification (E), and by representative images (F). *p

GRh2 treatment decreases β-catenin and increases autophagy in SCC cells

We analyzed the molecular mechanisms underlying the cancer inhibitory effects of GRh2 on SCC cells. We thus examined the growth-regulatory proteins in SCC. From a variety of proteins, we found that GRh2 treatment dose-dependently decreases β-catenin, and dose-dependently upregulated autophagy-related proteins Beclin, Atg7 and increased the ratio of LC3 II to LC3 I, by quantification (Fig. 3A), and by representative Western blots (Fig.3B). Since β-catenin signaling is a strong cell-growth stimulator and autophagy can usually lead to stop of cell-growth and cell death, we feel that the alteration in these pathways may be responsible for the GRh2-mediated suppression of SCC growth.

(not shown)

Figure 3. GRh2 treatment decreases β-catenin and increases autophagy in SCC cells.

Inhibition of autophagy abolishes the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin

In order to find out the relationship between β-catenin and autophagy in this model, we inhibited autophagy using a shRNA for Atg7, and examined its effect on the changes of β-catenin by GRh2. First, the inhibition of Atg7 in A431 cells by shAtg7 was confirmed by RT-qPCR (Fig. 4A), and by Western blot (Fig. 4B). Inhibition of Atg7 resulted in abolishment of the effects of GRh2 on other autophagy-associated proteins (Fig. 4B), and resulted in abolishment of the inhibitory effect of GRh2 on β-catenin (Fig. 4B). Moreover, the effects of GRh2 on cell viability were completely inhibited (Fig. 4C). Together, inhibition of autophagy abolishes the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin. Thus, the regulation of GRh2 on β-catenin needs autophagy-associated proteins.

Fig. 4. Inhibition of autophagy abolishes the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin.

A431 cells were transfected with shRNA for Atg7, or scrambled sequence (scr) as a control. (A) RT-qPCR for Atg7. (B) Quantification of β-catenin, Beclin, Atg7 and LC3 by Western blot. (C) Cell viability by CCK-8 assay. *p

Overexpression of β-catenin abolishes the effects of GRh2 on autophagy

Next, we inhibited the effects of GRh2 on β-catenin by overexpression of β-catenin in A431 cells. First, the overexpression of β-catenin in A431 cells was confirmed by RT-qPCR (Fig. 5A), and by Western blot (Fig. 5B). Overexpression of β-catenin resulted in abolishment of the effects of GRh2 on autophagy-associated proteins (Fig. 5B). Moreover, the effects of GRh2 on cell viability were completely inhibited (Fig. 5C). Together, inhibition of β-catenin signaling abolishes the effects of GRh2 on autophagy. Thus, the regulation of GRh2 on autophagy needs β-catenin signaling. This model is thus summarized in a schematic (Fig. 6), suggesting that GRh2 may target both β-catenin signaling and autophagy, which interacts with each other in the regulation of SCC cell viability and growth.

Fig. 5. Overexpression of β-catenin abolishes the effects of GRh2 on autophagy. A431 cells were transfected with β-catenin, or scrambled sequence (scr) as a control. (A) RT-qPCR for β-catenin. (B) Quantification of β-catenin, Beclin, Atg7 and LC3 by Western blot. (C) Cell viability by CCK-8 assay. *p

Fig. 6. Schematic of the model. GRh2 may target both β-catenin signaling and autophagy, which interacts with each other in the regulation of SCC cell viability and growth.

Understanding the cancer molecular biology of skin SCC and identification of an effective treatment are both critical for improving the current therapy [1]. Lgr5 has been recently identified as a novel stem cell marker of the intestinal epithelium and the hair follicle, in which Lgr5 is expressed in actively cycling cells [32,33]. Moreover, we recently showed that Lgr5-positive are CSCs in skin SCC [34]. Thus, specific targeting Lgr5-positive cells may be a promising therapy for skin SCC.

In the current study, we analyzed the effects of GRh2 on the viability of SCC. Importantly, we not only found that GRh2 dose-dependently decreases SCC cell viability, but also dose-dependently decreased the number of Lgr5-positive CSCs in SCC cells. These data suggest that the CSCs in SCC may be more susceptible for the GRh2 treatment, and the decreases in CSCs may result in the decreased viability in total SCC cells. This point was supported by following mechanism studies. Activated β-catenin signaling by WNT/GSK3β prevents degradation of β-catenin and induces its nuclear translocation [39]. Nuclear β-catenin thus activates c-myc, cyclinD1 and c-jun to promote cell proliferation, and activates Bcl-2 to inhibit apoptosis [39]. High β-catenin levels thus are a signature of CSCs. Therefore, it is not surprising that CSCs are more affected than other cells when GRh2 targets β-catenin signaling.

In addition, GRh2 appears to target autophagy. Although altered metabolism may be beneficial to the cancer cells, it can create an increased demand for nutrients to support cell growth and proliferation, which creates metabolic stress and subsequently induces autophagy, a catabolic process leading to degradation of cellular components through the lysosomal system [40]. Cancer cells use autophagy as a survival strategy to provide essential biomolecules that are required for cell viability under metabolic stress [40]. However, autophagy not only results in a staring in cell growth, but also may result in cell death [40]. Increases in autophagy may substantially decrease cancer cell growth. Thus, GRh2 has its inhibitory effect on skin SCC cells through a combined effect on cell proliferation (by decreasing β-catenin) and autophagy [40].

Interestingly, our data suggest an interaction between β-catenin and autophagy. This finding is consistent with previous reports showing that autophagy negatively modulates Wnt/β-catenin signaling by promoting Dvl instability [41,42], and with other studies showing that β-catenin regulates autophagy [38,43,44].

Of note, we have checked other SCC lines and essentially got same results. Together with our previous reports showing that Lgr5-positive cells are CSCs in skin SCC [34], these findings thus highlight a future engagement of Lgr5-directed GRh2 therapy, which could be performed in a sufficiently frequent manner, to substantially improve the current treatment for skin SCC.

Normal vs Cancer Thyroid Stem Cells: The Road to Transformation
The authors discuss new insights into thyroid stem cells as a potential source of cancer formation in light of the available information on the oncogenic role of genetic modifications that occur during thyroid cancer development. Understanding the fine mechanisms that regulate tumor transformation may provide new ground for clinical intervention in terms of prevention, diagnosis and therapy. [Oncogene] Abstract
Cancer Stem Cells: A Potential Target for Cancer Therapy
The identification of cancer stem cells (CSCs) and a better understanding of the complex characteristics of CSCs will provide invaluable diagnostic, therapeutic and prognostic targets for clinical application. The authors introduce the dysregulated properties of CSCs in cancers and discuss the possible challenges in targeting CSCs for cancer treatment. [Cell Mol Life Sci] Abstract
Targeting Cancer Stem Cells Using Immunologic Approaches
Wicha, M; Chang, A; Yingxin, X; Xiaolian, Z; Ning, N; Liu, Shuang, Q, L; Pan, Q
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Ivy, P; Takebe, N
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Liu, Y; Peng, G
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Tang, D; Chao, HP; Wang, J; Yang, Tao; Jeter, C
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Two Genes Control Breast Cancer Stem Cell Proliferation and Tumor Properties

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Causes and imaging features of false positives and false negatives on 18F-PET/CT in oncologic imaging

 Reporter: Dror Nir, PhD

Early this year I have posted on: Whole-body imaging as cancer screening tool; answering an unmet clinical need? F-PET/CT was discussed in this post as a leading modality in that respect. Here I report on an article dedicated to the sources for misdiagnosis; i.e. false negatives and false positives when applying this technology:

Causes and imaging features of false positives and false negatives on 18F-PET/CT in oncologic imaging, Niamh M. Long and Clare S. Smith /Insights into Imaging© European Society of Radiology 201010.1007/s13244-010-0062-3



18F-FDG is a glucose analogue that is taken up by a wide range of malignancies. 18F-FDG PET-CT is now firmly established as an accurate method for the staging and restaging of various cancers. However, 18F-FDG also accumulates in normal tissue and other non-malignant conditions, and some malignancies do not take up F18-FDG or have a low affinity for the tracer, leading to false-positive and false-negative interpretations.


PET-CT allows for the correlation of two separate imaging modalities, combining both morphological and metabolic information. We should use the CT to help interpret the PET findings. In this article we will highlight specific false-negative and false-positive findings that one should be aware of when interpreting oncology scans.


We aim to highlight post-treatment conditions that are encountered routinely on restaging scans that can lead to false-positive interpretations. We will emphasise the importance of using the CT component to help recognise these entities to allow improved diagnostic accuracy.


In light of the increased use of PET-CT, it is important that nuclear medicine physicians and radiologists be aware of these conditions and correlate the PET and CT components to avoid misdiagnosis, over staging of disease and unnecessary biopsies.


[18F] 2-fluoro-2deoxy-D-glucose (18F-FDG) PET-CT imaging has become firmly established as an excellent clinical tool in the diagnosis, staging and restaging of cancer. 18F-FDG (a glucose analog) is taken up by cells via glucose transporter proteins. The glucose analog then undergoes phosphorylation by hexokinase to FDG-6 phosphate. Unlike glucose, FDG-phosphate does not undergo further metabolism and so becomes trapped in the cell as the cell membrane is impermeable to FDG-6 phosphate following phosphorylation [1].

Malignant tumors have a higher metabolic rate and generally express higher numbers of specific membrane transporter proteins than normal cells. This results in increased uptake of 18F-FDG by tumor cells and forms the basis of FDG-PET imaging [2]. Glucose however acts as a basic energy substrate for many tissues, and so 18F-FDG activity can be seen both physiologically and in benign conditions. In addition, not all tumors take up FDG [35]. The challenge for the interpreting physician is to recognize these entities and avoid the many pitfalls associated with 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging.

In this article we discuss false-positive and false-negative 18F-FDG PET-CT findings, common and atypical physiological sites of FDG uptake, and benign pathological causes of FDG uptake. We will focus on post-treatment conditions that can result in false-positive findings. We will highlight the importance of utilizing the CT component of the study, not only for attenuation correction but also in the interpretation of the study. The CT component of 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging can provide high-resolution anatomical information, which enables more accurate staging and assessment. For the purposes of this article, we refer to the descriptive terms “false-positive” and “false-negative” findings in the context of oncology imaging.

The authors acknowledge that there are recognized causes of FDG uptake that are not related to malignancy; however in this paper we refer to false-positive findings as FDG uptake that is not tumor related.

Patient preparation

Tumor uptake of FDG is reduced in the presence of raised serum glucose as glucose competes with FDG for uptake by the membrane transporter proteins. In order to prevent false-negative results, it is necessary for the patient to fast for at least 4–6 h prior to the procedure [6]. Induction of a euglycamic hypoinsulinaemic state also serves to reduce the uptake of glucose by the myocardium and skeletal muscle. In the fasting state, the decreased availability of glucose results in predominant metabolism of fatty acids by the myocardium. This reduces the intensity of myocardial uptake and prevents masking of metastatic disease within the mediastinum [6].

The radiotracer is administered intravenously (dose dependent on both the count rate capability of the system used and the patient’s weight), and the patient is left resting in a comfortable position during the uptake phase (60–90 min). Patient discomfort and anxiety can result in increased uptake in skeletal muscles of the neck and paravertebral regions. Muscular contraction immediately prior to or following injection can result in increased FDG activity in major muscle groups [6].

Patients are placed in a warm, quiet room with little stimulation, as speech during the uptake phase is associated with increased FDG uptake in the laryngeal muscles [7].

At our institution we perform the CT component with arms up except for head and neck studies where the arms are placed down by the side. This minimizes artifacts on CT. Depending on the type of cancer, oral contrast to label the bowel and intravenous contrast may also be given. The CT is performed with a full dose similar to a diagnostic CT, and lungs are analyzed following reconstruction with a lung algorithm. The PET scan is performed with 3–4 min per bed position; however the time per bed position will vary in different centers depending on both the dose of FDG administered and the specifications of the camera used for image acquisition. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide detailed procedure guidelines for 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging, and for this purpose we refer the reader to a comprehensive paper by Boellaard et al. [8].

Technical causes of false positives

Misregistration artifact

The evaluation of pulmonary nodules provides a unique challenge for combined PET-CT scanning due to differences in breathing patterns between CT and PET acquisition periods. CT imaging of the thorax is classically performed during a breath-hold; however PET images are acquired during tidal breathing, and this can contribute significantly to misregistration of pulmonary nodules on fused PET-CT images. Misregistration is particularly evident at the lung bases, which can lead to difficulty differentiating pulmonary nodules from focal liver lesions (Fig. 1) [9].


Fig. 1

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 65-year-old male with colorectal cancer. On the coronal PET images, a focus of increased FDG uptake is seen at the right lung base (black arrow). Contrast CT does not show any pulmonary nodules but does demonstrate a liver metastasis in the superior aspect of the right lobe of the liver (yellow arrow)

Acquiring CT imaging of the thorax during quiet respiration can help to minimize misregistration artifacts. It is also important to correlate your PET and CT findings by scrolling up and down to make sure that lesions match.

Injected clot

A further diagnostic pitfall in staging of intrathoracic disease can be caused by injected clot. Injection of radioactive clot following blood withdrawal into the syringe at the time of radiotracer administration can result in pulmonary hotspots [10]. The absence of a CT correlate for a pulmonary hotspot should raise the possibility of injected clot; however this is a diagnosis of exclusion, and it is important to carefully evaluate the adjacent slices to ensure the increased radiotracer activity does not relate to misregistration of a pulmonary nodule or hilar lymph node. The area of abnormal radiotracer uptake should also be closely evaluated on subsequent restaging CT to ensure there has been no interval development of an anatomical abnormality in the region of previously diagnosed injected clot (Fig. 2) [11].


Fig. 2

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 28-year-old male with an osteosarcoma of the femur. A focus of increased FDG uptake (yellow arrow) is identified in the left lower lobe with no CT correlate (a). A 3-month follow-up CT thorax again does not demonstrate any pulmonary nodules confirming that the uptake seen originally on the PET-CT was due to injected clot (b)

Injection artifact

Leakage of radiotracer into the subcutaneous tissues at the injection site or tissued injection can result in subcutaneous tracking of FDG along lymphatic channels in the arm. This can result in spurious uptake in axillary nodes distal to the injection site [12]. Careful attention must be paid to the technical aspects of the study to ensure accurate staging. Injection at the side contralateral to the site of disease is advised where feasible to allow differentiation between artifactual and metastatic uptake, particularly in breast cancer patients. The side of injection should also be clearly documented during administration of radiotracer, and this information should be available to the reader in order to ensure pathological FDG uptake is not spuriously attributed to injection artifact (Fig. 3).


Fig. 3

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 56-year-old woman with colorectal cancer. Some low grade FDG uptake is identified in non-enlarged right axillary nodes (yellow arrow) consistent with injection artifact

Imaging of metallic implants

The use of CT for attenuation correction negates the need for traditional transmission attenuation correction, reducing scanning time. There are however technical factors relating to the use of CT imaging for attenuation correction, which lead to artefacts when imaging metal [9]. The presence of metal implants in the body produces streak artifact on CT imaging and degrades image quality. When CT images are used for attenuation correction, the presence of metal results in over attenuation of PET activity in this region and can result in artifactual ‘hot spots.’ Metal prostheses, dental fillings, indwelling ports and breast expanders and sometimes contrast media are common causes of streak artifact secondary to high photon absorption and can cause attenuation correction artifacts [9]. In order to avoid false positives, particularly when imaging metallic implants careful attenuation should be paid to the nonattenuation corrected images, which do not produce this artifact.

Sites of physiological FDG uptake

Physiological uptake in a number of organs is readily recognized and rarely confused with malignancy. These include cerebral tissue, the urinary system, liver and spleen. Approximately 20% of administered activity is renally excreted in the 2 h post-injection resulting in intense radiotracer activity in the renal collecting systems, ureters and bladder [13]. In order to minimize the intensity of renal activity, patients are advised to void prior to imaging. Moderate physiological FDG uptake is noted in the liver, spleen, GI tract and salivary glands. Uptake in the cecum and right colon tends to be higher than in the remainder of the colon due to the presence of glucose-avid lymphocytes [14].

Other sites of physiological FDG activity can be confused with malignancy. Examples include activity within brown fat, adrenal activity, uterus and ovaries.

Brown fat

FDG uptake in hyper-metabolic brown adipose tissue is well recognized as a potential source of false positive in 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging. The incidence of FDG uptake in brown fat has been reported as between 2.5–4% [1516].

Hypermetabolic brown fat is more commonly identified in children than in adults and is more prevalent in females than in males. It occurs more frequently in patients with low body mass index and in cold weather [15].

Glucose accumulation within brown fat is increased by sympathetic stimulation as brown fat is innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. In view of this, administration of oral propranolol is advised by some authors as it has been shown to reduce the uptake of FDG by brown fat [17]. This is not performed at our institution; however, attempts are made to reduce FDG uptake in brown fat by maintaining a warm ambient temperature and providing patients with blankets during the uptake phase.

The typical distribution of brown fat in a bilateral symmetric pattern in the supraclavicular and neck regions is rarely confused with malignancy. In cases where hypermetabolic brown fat is seen to surround lymph nodes, the CT images should be separately evaluated to allow morphological assessment of the lymph nodes. The classical CT features of pathological replacement of lymph nodes should be sought, namely increased short axis diameter, loss of the fatty hilum and loss of the normal concavity of the lymph node. If the morphology of the lymph node is entirely normal, malignancy can be confidently excluded and the increased uptake attributed to brown fat [18].

Atypical brown fat in the mediastinum can be misinterpreted as nodal metastases and has been identified in the paratracheal, paraoesophageal, prevascular regions, along the pericardium and in the interatrial septum. Extramediastinal sites of brown fat uptake include the paravertebral regions, perinephric, perihepatic and subdiaphragmatic regions and in the intraatrial septum [16].

The absence of an anatomical lesion on CT imaging in areas of FDG uptake should raise the possibility of brown fat to the reader. Careful evaluation of the CT images must be performed to confirm the presence of adipose tissue in the anatomical region correlating to the increased FDG activity on 18F-FDG PET before this activity be attributed to brown fat.

An awareness of the possibility of brown fat in atypical locations is vital to avoid overstaging, and correlation with CT imaging increases reader confidence in differentiating brown fat from malignancy (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4

18F-FDG PET-CT surveillance scan performed in a 36-year-old male with a history of seminoma. Symmetrical uptake is noted in the neck, supraclavicular fossa and paravertebral regions consistent with typical appearance of brown fat activity (black arrow). Brown fat uptake is also seen in the left supradiaphragmatic region and left paraoesophageal region (yellow arrow) (a). 18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 48-year-old male with a history of colorectal cancer. Increased FDG uptake is noted within brown fat associated with lipomatous hypertrophy of the intra-atrial septum (b)

Uterine and ovarian uptake

In premenopausal women endometrial uptake of FDG varies cyclically and is increased both at ovulation and during the menstrual phase of the cycle with mean SUV values of 3.5–5 [19]. Endometrial uptake in postmenopausal women is abnormal and warrants further investigation; however benign explanations for increased FDG uptake include recent curettage, uterine fibroids and endometrial polyps [19].

Benign ovarian uptake of FDG in premenopausal women can be associated with ovulation. In postmenopausal women, ovarian uptake of FDG should be further investigated (Fig. 5).


Fig. 5

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 42-year-old premenopausal female with breast cancer. She was scanned during menstruation. FDG uptake is noted within metastatic right axillary nodes (black arrow). Increased FDG uptake is also noted within the endometrial canal of the uterus (yellow arrow), which is thickened on CT, consistent with active menstruation (a). 18F-FDG PET-CT performed in the same 42-year-old woman at a different stage in her menstrual cycle showing resolution of the previously identified uterine uptake (yellow arrow) (b)

Adrenal uptake

18F-FDG PET imaging is commonly used for evaluation of adrenal masses in patients with diagnosed malignancies. Similarly incidental adrenal lesions are commonly identified on staging 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging. The positive predictive value of 18F-FDG PET-CT evaluation of adrenal lesions has been reported as high as 95% with a similarly high negative predictive value of 94% [20].

Causes of false-positive adrenal lesions include angiomyolipoma, adrenal hyperplasia and adrenal adenomas (up to 5%) [2124]. FDG activity greater than that of the liver is generally associated with malignancy; however benign lesions have been reported with greater activity than liver [21].

Evaluation of the CT component can provide additional diagnostic information with identification of HU attenuation values of <10 on noncontrast CT for adrenal adenomas or fat-containing myelolipomata [21].

Symmetrical intense FDG activity with no identifiable abnormality on CT is associated with benign physiological FDG uptake (Fig. 6).

f6 f6-b

Fig. 6

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 50-year-old woman with inflammatory breast cancer. Diffuse increased FDG uptake is noted within the right breast (yellow arrow) and in a right axillary node (black arrow), consistent with malignancy (a). Increased symmetrical uptake is also noted within both adrenal glands with no abnormal correlate on CT (yellow arrow) (b). Post-chemotherapy PET-CT performed 5 months later demonstrates resolution of the activity within the breast, increased uptake in the bone marrow consistent with post treatment effect (black arrow) and persistent increased uptake in the adrenal glands (yellow arrow), confirming benign physiological activity (c)

Thyroid uptake

Thyroid uptake is incidentally identified on 18F-FDG PET imaging with a frequency of almost 4%, with a diffuse uptake pattern in roughly half of cases and a focal pattern in the remainder [22]. The majority of diffuse uptake represents chronic thyroiditis, multinodular goiter or Graves’ disease, whereas focal uptake is associated with a risk of malignancy that ranges from 30.9–63.6% in published studies [2223]. Focal thyroid uptake requires further investigation with ultrasound and tissue biopsy.

Uptake in the gastrointestinal tract

The pattern of physiological uptake within the GI tract is highly variable. Low-grade linear uptake is likely related to smooth muscle activity and swallowed secretions. More focal increased uptake in the distal esophagus is sometimes seen with Barrett’s esophagus. In view of this, referral for OGD may be reasonable in cases of increased uptake in the distal esophagus [1424].

The typical pattern of FDG uptake in the stomach is of low-grade activity in a J-shaped configuration. Small bowel typically demonstrates mild heterogeneous uptake throughout. Common pitfalls of small bowel evaluation relate to spuriously high uptake in underdistened or overlapping loops of bowel [1425].

Within the colon, FDG uptake is highly variable, however can be quite avid particularly in the cecum, right colon and rectosigmoid regions. Focal areas of FDG activity within the colon that are of greater intensity than background liver uptake should raise the suspicion of a colonic neoplasm (Fig. 7) [2526].


Fig. 7

18F-FDG PET-CT restaging scan performed in a 65-year-old female with a history of breast cancer. Incidental focal uptake is identified in the ascending colon where some abnormal thickening is seen on the CT component (yellow arrow). Colonoscopy confirmed the presence of a T3 adenocarcinoma

In a review of over 3,000 patients’ focal areas of abnormal FDG uptake within the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) were identified in 3% of cases of staging 18F-FDG PET-CT studies.

Incidental malignant lesions were identified in 19% of these patients with pre-malignant lesions including adenomas in 42% of the patients [27]. In view of this endoscopy referral is recommended in the absence of a clear benign correlate for focal areas of avid uptake on CT imaging.

Treatment-related causes of false-positive uptake

There are a number of conditions that can occur in patients undergoing treatment for cancer. When imaging these patients to assess for response, we often see these treatment-related conditions. It is important to recognize the imaging features to avoid misdiagnosis.

Thymus/thymic hyperplasia

Thymic hyperplasia post-chemotherapy is a well-described phenomenon. It is generally seen in children and young adults at a median of 12 months post chemotherapy [28]. The presence of increased FDG uptake in the anterior mediastinum can be attributed to thymic hyperplasia by identification of a triangular soft tissue density seen retrosternally on CT with a characteristic bilobed anatomical appearance [29]. In the presence of thymic hyperplasia, there is generally preservation of the normal shape of the gland despite an increase in size [30].

Superior mediastinal extension of thymic tissue is an anatomical variant that has been described in children and young adults (Fig. 8).


Fig. 8

A 3.5-year-old boy with abdominal Burkitt’s lymphoma. Coronal 18F-FDG PET scan obtained 5 months after completion of treatment shows increased activity in the thymus in an inverted V configuration and in superior thymic extension (white arrow). Note physiologic activity within the right neck in the sternocleidomastoid muscle (a). Axial CT image from the same 18F-FDG PET-CT study performed 5 months after treatment shows a nodule (white arrow) anteromedial to the left brachiocephalic vein (b). Axial fusion image shows that the FDG activity in the superior mediastinum corresponds to this enlarged nodule anteromedial to left brachiocephalic vein (white arrow) (c). Axial fusion image shows increased activity in an enlarged thymus consistent with thymic hyperplasia (white arrow; standardized uptake value 3.0) of similar intensity to activity in superior mediastinum (d)

It presents as a soft tissue nodule anteromedial to the left brachiocephalic vein and represents a remnant of thymic tissue along the path of migration in fetal life. In patients with thymic hyperplasia, a superior mediastinal nodule in this location may represent accessory thymic tissue. An awareness of this physiological variant is necessary to prevent misdiagnosis [28].

G-CSF changes

Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor is a glycoprotein hormone that regulates proliferation and differentiation of granulocyte precursors. It is used to accelerate recovery from chemotherapy-related neutropaenia in cancer patients. Intense increased FDG uptake is commonly observed in the bone marrow and spleen following GCSF therapy; however the bone marrow response to GCSF can be differentiated from pathological infiltration by its intense homogeneous nature without focally increased areas of FDG uptake. Increased FDG uptake attributable to GCSF uptake rapidly decreases following completion of therapy and generally resolves within a month (Fig. 9).


Fig. 9

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 46-year-old male post four cycles of chemotherapy for lymphoma and 2 weeks post administration of G-CSF. Note the diffuse homogeneous increased uptake throughout the bone marrow and the increased uptake in the spleen (yellow arrow)

Marked uptake in the bone marrow can also be seen following chemotherapy, reflecting marrow activation [3132].

Radiation pneumonitis

Inflammatory morphological changes in the radiation field post-irradiation of primary or metastatic lung tumor can result in false-positive diagnosis. Radiation pneumonitis typically occurs following high doses of external beam radiotherapy (>40 Gy). In the acute phase (1–8 weeks) radiation pneumonitis is characterized by ground-glass opacities and patchy consolidation. This can commonly lead to a misdiagnosis of infection. Chronic CT appearances of fibrosis and traction bronchiectasis in the radiation field allow correct interpretation of increased FDG uptake as radiation pneumonitis as opposed to disease recurrence [3334]. Other organs are also sensitive to radiation, and persistent uptake due to inflammatory change can persist for up to 1 year. It is important to elicit a history of radiation from the patient and to correlate the increased uptake with the CT findings to avoid missing a disease recurrence (Fig. 10).

f 10

Fig. 10

18F18-FDG PET-CT performed in a 52-year-old male with newly diagnosed esophageal carcinoma. Increased FDG uptake is identified within the esophagus (black arrow) and an upper abdominal lymph node (yellow arrow), consistent with malignancy (a). 18F18-FDG PET-CT performed 6 weeks post-completion of radiotherapy for esophageal carcinoma. Linear increased uptake is identified along the mediastinum in the radiation port (black arrow). This corresponds to areas of ground-glass change on CT (yellow arrow) consistent with acute radiation change (b)


Bone marrow suppression places chemotherapy patients at increased risk of infection.

Inflammatory cells such as neutrophils and activated macrophages at the site of infection or inflammation actively accumulate FDG [35].

In the post-therapy setting it has been reported that up to 40% of FDG uptake occurs in non-tumor tissue [12]. Infection is one of the most common causes of false-positive 18F-FDG PET-CT findings post-chemotherapy. Chemotherapy patients are susceptible to a wide variety of infections, including upper respiratory chest infections, pneumonia, colitis and cholecystitis. Reactivation of tuberculous infection can occur in immunocompromised patients post,chemotherapy, and correlation with CT imaging can prevent misdiagnosis in suspected cases.

Atypical infections such as cryptococcosis and pneumocystis can also present as false-positives on FDG imaging (Fig. 11) [36].

f 11

Fig. 11

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 57-year-old male 2 weeks following chemotherapy for lung cancer. Increased FDG uptake is noted within the cecum (black arrow). On CT there is some thickening of the cecal wall and stranding of the pericecal fat (yellow arrow) consistent with typhilits

Surgery and radiotherapy

There are inherent challenges in the interpretation of 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging in the postoperative patient. Non-tumor-related uptake of FDG is frequently identified in post-operative wound sites, at colostomy sites or at the site of post-radiation inflammatory change. 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging during the early postoperative/post-radiotherapy period may result in overstaging of patients because of non-neoplastic uptake of FDG [12]. Careful evaluation of the CT component in this setting is vital as CT imaging can provide valuable additional information regarding benign inflammatory conditions commonly encountered in the postoperative setting such as abscesses or wound infection. These conditions are often readily apparent on CT, particularly when oral and/or IV contrast CT is administered.

The reader should also bear in mind that avid uptake of FDG at postoperative/post radiotherapy sites may mask malignant FDG uptake in neighboring structures. In order to minimize non-tumoral uptake of FDG, it is advisable to allow at least 6 weeks post-surgery or completion of radiotherapy prior to performing staging 18F-FDG PET-CT [24].

Talc pleurodesis

Talc pleurodesis is a commonly performed procedure for the treatment of persistent pneumothorax or pleural effusion. The fibrotic/inflammatory reaction results in increased FDG uptake on 18F-FDG PET imaging with corresponding high-density areas of pleural thickening on CT. SUV values of between 2–16.3 have been seen years after the procedure [37].

When increased FDG uptake is indentified in the pleural space in a patient with a known history of pleurodesis, correlation with CT is recommended to detect pleural thickening of increased attenuation that suggests talc rather than tumor.

It is extremely important that a comprehensive history with relevant surgical interventions is available to the reader in order to ensure accurate diagnosis and staging (Fig. 12).

f 12

Fig. 12

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 69-year-old male with a history of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The patient had a previous talc pleurodesis for a persistent left pleural effusion. Increased FDG activity is identified within the left pleura (black arrow). CT demonstrates a pleural effusion with high density material along the left pleural surface consistent with talc (yellow arrow)

Flare phenomenon

Bone healing is mediated by osteoblasts, and an early increase in osteoblast activity on successful treatment of metastatic disease has been described [38]. “Bone flare” refers to a disproportionate increase in bone lesion activity on isotope bone scan despite evidence of a therapeutic response to treatment in other lesions and has been well described in breast, prostate and lung tumors. ‘Flare phenomenon’ has also been described on 18F-FDG PET-CT in patients with lung and breast cancer who are receiving chemotherapy [39].

Differentiating between increased FDG uptake due to flare response and true disease progression may not be possible in the early post-treatment studies. While it is recognized that bone flare is a rare phenomenon, an increase in baseline skeletal activity and appearance of new bone lesions despite apparent response or stable disease elsewhere should be interpreted with caution to avoid erroneously suggesting progressive disease.


Osteonecrosis or avascular necrosis has been well described as a complication of combination chemotherapy treatment, especially where it includes intermittent high-dose corticosteroids (e.g., lymphoma patients) [40]. Commonly encountered sites include the hip and less frequently the proximal humerus. Occasionally we can see a discrete entity known as jaw osteonecrosis. Patients receiving IV bisphosphonates for the management of bone metastases are at an increased risk of developing this [41]. The development of osteonecrosis in the mandible is frequently preceded by tooth extraction. Radiographic findings that may be visualized on CT include osteosclerosis, dense woven bone, thickened lamina dura and sub-periosteal bone deposition [42]. FDG uptake can be seen in areas of osteonecrosis (Fig. 13).

f 13

Fig. 13

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 46-year-old gentleman with a history of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Increased FDG uptake is identified in the right proximal humerus (black arrow). CT of the area demonstrates a corresponding vague area of sclerosis (yellow arrow). Biopsy of the area yielded osteonecrosis with no evidence of metastatic disease

Insufficiency fractures

Pelvic insufficiency fractures have been described following irradiation for gynecological, colorectal, anal and prostate cancer. They commonly occur within 3–12 months post-radiation treatment, and osteoporosis is often a precipitating factor. FDG uptake in insufficiency fractures ranges from mild and diffuse to intense and heterogeneous. The maximum SUV values are variable with reported values of between 2.4–7.2 [43]. Differentiating insufficiency fractures from bone metastases can prove challenging; however they are often bilateral and occur in characteristic locations within the radiation field—sacral ala, pubic rami and iliac bones. Biopsy of insufficiency fractures can lead to irreparable damage and so careful correlation of 18F-FDG PET imaging with the CT component along with radiation history is vital for correct diagnosis. CT allows evaluation of the bone cortex and adjacent soft tissues, which can confirm the diagnosis of a pathological fracture or a metastatic deposit.

Follow-up of suspected insufficiency fractures demonstrates a reduction in FDG uptake over time (Fig. 14) [43].

f 14

Fig. 14

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 46-year-old female, 3 years post-chemo-radiation for cervical carcinoma. Low grade FDG uptake is identified in the left acetabulum and right pubic bone (black arrow). CT demonstrates pathological fractures in these areas consistent with insufficiency fractures (yellow arrow)


Sarcoidosis is a chronic multisystem disorder characterized by non-caseating granulomas and derangement of normal tissue architecture [36]. Sarcoidosis has been reported in association with a variety of malignancies either synchronously or post-chemotherapy. Aggregation of inflammatory cells post-chemotherapy is associated with accumulation of FDG, and the intensity of FDG uptake may correlate with disease activity [36].

When suspected disease recurrence presents with signs and symptoms compatible with sarcoidosis (i.e., mediastinal and bihilar lymphadenopathy), this must be excluded by clinical, radiological and pathological correlation to prevent mistreatment (Fig. 15).

f 15

Fig. 15

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 67-year-old male for restaging of laryngeal carcinoma. Increased FDG uptake is noted in the left lower neck and left mediastinum (black arrow). CT demonstrates lymphadenopathy in these areas (yellow arrow), some of which are calcified. Biopsy of the left lower neck node confirmed sarcoidosis

FDG-PET negative tumors

There are a number of malignancies that can be FDG-PET negative. Examples include bronchoalveolar carcinoma and carcinoid tumors in the lung, renal cell carcinomas and hepatomas, mucinous tumors of the GIT and colon, and low grade lymphomas [34448]. Careful evaluation of the CT component of the study however will prevent a misdiagnosis (Fig. 16).

f 16

Fig. 16

18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 52-year-old female with breast cancer and chronic hepatitis. On the CT component a hyper-enhancing mass is identified in segment 4 of the liver (yellow arrow). No increased FDG activity is identified in this area on the PET component. Biopsy of the mass confirmed the diagnosis of a hepatocellular carcinoma

Osteoblastic metastases

Bone metastases are diagnosed in up to 85% of patients with advanced breast cancer, leading to significant morbidity and mortality. Sclerotic bone metastases are commonly associated with breast carcinoma [49].18F-FDG PET imaging is superior to nuclear bone scan in detection of osteolytic breast metastases; however it commonly fails to diagnose osteoblastic or sclerotic metastases [50]. Review of bony windows on CT imaging allows identification of sclerotic metastases and ensures accurate staging of metastatic bone disease (Fig. 17).

f 17

Fig. 17

Staging 18F-FDG PET-CT performed in a 45-year-old female with newly diagnosed breast cancer. CT demonstrates multiple small sclerotic foci in the spine and pelvis (yellow arrow), consistent with bony metastases. These are FDG negative on the PET component of the study


18F-FDG PET imaging has dramatically changed cancer staging, and findings of restaging studies commonly effect changes in treatment protocols. 18F-FDG however is not tumor specific. As interpreting physicians we need to be aware of these false positives and false negatives. In this review we have outlined atypical physiological sites of FDG uptake along with common causes of FDG uptake in benign pathological conditions, many of which are treatment related. With 18F-FDG PET-CT we have the advantage of two imaging modalities. The PET component gives us functional information and the CT, anatomical data. We have discussed the importance of dual-modality imaging and correlation with CT imaging of the above conditions. Furthermore CT imaging provides important diagnostic information in evaluation of tumors that poorly concentrate FDG. In light of the increased reliance of 18F-FDG PET-CT for cancer staging, it is vital that radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians be aware of pitfalls in 18F-FDG PET-CT imaging and correlate PET and CT components to avoid misdiagnosis, overstaging of disease and unnecessary biopsies.

Other research papers related to the use of 18F-PET in management of cancer were published on this Scientific Web site:

State of the art in oncologic imaging of Lymphoma.

State of the art in oncologic imaging of Colorectal cancers.

State of the art in oncologic imaging of Prostate.

State of the art in oncologic imaging of lungs.

State of the art in oncologic imaging of breast.

Whole-body imaging as cancer screening tool; answering an unmet clinical need?




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Minimally invasive image-guided therapy for inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma

Curator & Reporter: Dror Nir, PhD

Large organs like the liver are good candidates for focused treatment. The following paper:

Minimally invasive image-guided therapy for inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma: What is the evidence today?

By Beatrijs A. Seinstra1, et. al. published mid-2010, gives a review of the state-of-the-art of the then available methods for local lesions’ ablation. As far as ablation techniques availability, I have found this review very much relevant to today’s technological reality. It is worthwhile noting that in the last couple of years, new imaging-based navigation and guidance applications were introduced into the market holding a promise to improve the accuracy of administrating such treatment. These are subject to clinical validation in large clinical studies.  From the above mentioned publication I have chosen to highlight the parts discussing the importance of imaging-based guidance to the effective application of localized ablation-type therapies.

The clinical need:

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a primary malignant tumor of the liver that accounts for an important health problem worldwide. Primary liver cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide with an incidence of 626,000 patients a year, and the third most common cause of cancer-related death [1]. Only 10–15% of HCC patients are suitable candidates for hepatic resection and liver transplantation due to the advanced stage of the disease at time of diagnosis and shortage of donors.

Immerging solution:

In order to provide therapeutic options for patients with inoperable HCC, several minimally invasive image-guided therapies for locoregional treatment have been developed. HCC has a tendency to remain confined to the liver until the disease has advanced, making these treatments particularly attractive.

Minimally invasive image-guided therapies can be divided into the group of the tumor ablative techniques or the group of image-guided catheter-based techniques. Tumor ablative techniques are either based on thermal tumor destruction, as in radiofrequency ablation (RFA), cryoablation, microwave ablation, laser ablation and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), or chemical tumor destruction, as in percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI). These techniques are mostly used for early stage disease. Image-guided catheter-based techniques rely on intra-arterial delivery of embolic, chemoembolic, or radioembolic agents [22]. These techniques enable treatment of large lesions or whole liver treatment, and are as such used for intermediate stage HCC (Figure 1).

Minimally invasive image-guided ablation techniques and intra-arterial interventions may prolong survival, spare more functioning liver tissue in comparison to surgical resection (which can be very important in cirrhotic patients), allow retreatment if necessary, and may be an effective bridge to transplantation [2327].

During the last 2 decades, minimally invasive image-guided therapies have revolutionized the management of inoperable HCC.

The value of image guidance

Accurate imaging is of great importance during minimally invasive loco-regional therapies to efficiently guide and monitor the treatment. It enables proper placement of instruments, like the probe in case of ablation or the catheter in case of intra-arterial therapy, and accurate monitoring of the progression of the necrotic zone during ablation.

can all be employed. In current clinical practice, placement of the catheter in intra-arterial procedures is usually performed under fluoroscopic guidance, while ablation may be guided by ultrasound, CT or MRI.

  • Ultrasound guidance allows probe insertion from every angle, offers real time visualization and correction for motion artifacts when targeting the tumor, and is low cost. However, the gas created during ablation (or ice in the case of cryoablation) hampers penetration of the ultrasound beams in tissue, causing acoustic shadowing and obscuring image details like the delineation between tumor borders and ablation zone.
  • CT is also frequently used to guide minimally invasive ablation therapy, and is a reliable modality to confirm treatment results. In comparison to US, it provides increased lesion discrimination, a more reliable depiction of ablated/non-ablated interfaces, and a better correlation to pathologic size [28]. However, due to its hypervascularity, small HCCs can only be clearly visualized in the arterial phase for a short period of time. Another disadvantage of CT is the exposure of the patient and physician to ionizing radiation.
  • Combining US imaging for probe placement and CT for ablation monitoring reduces this exposure. At the moment, hybrid systems are being developed, enabling combination of imaging techniques, like ultrasound and CT imaging, thereby improving the registration accuracy during treatment [29]. The interest in MRI-guided ablation is growing, as it produces a high-quality image allowing high-sensitivity tumor detection and accurate identification of the target region with multiplanar imaging.
  • MRI also enables real-time monitoring of the temperature evolution during treatment [3035]. However, MRI is an expensive technique, and MRI-guided ablation is still limited in clinical practice. Currently, the most widely used ablation technique for percutaneous treatment of focal hepatic malignancies is radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which has been shown to be safe and effective for the treatment of early stage HCC [4850]. During RFA, a small electrode is placed within the tumor, and a high-frequency alternating electric current (approximately 400 MHz) is generated, causing ionic agitation within the tissue. ….. Most frequently ultrasound is used for image guidance (Figs. 23), but there are reports of groups who use CT, MRI, or fluoroscopic imaging.
Ultrasound guided RFA. a: HCC lesion in a non-surgical patient pre-treatment (pointed out by arrow). b: Just after start treatment, electrode placed centrally in the tumor. c: Gas formation during ablation causes acoustic shadowing

Ultrasound guided RFA. a: HCC lesion in a non-surgical patient pre-treatment (pointed out by arrow). b: Just after start treatment, electrode placed centrally in the tumor. c: Gas formation during ablation causes acoustic shadowing

Contrast-enhanced CT pre- and post-RFA. Same patient as in Fig. 2. a: Hypervascular lesion (biopsy proven HCC) in right liver lobe (pointed out by arrow) before treatment. b: Ablated lesion directly post ablation, with reactive hyperemia around the RFA lesion

Contrast-enhanced CT pre- and post-RFA. Same patient as in Fig. 2. a: Hypervascular lesion (biopsy proven HCC) in right liver lobe (pointed out by arrow) before treatment. b: Ablated lesion directly post ablation, with reactive hyperemia around the RFA lesion



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Other research papers related to the management of Prostate cancer were published on this Scientific Web site:

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Harnessing Personalized Medicine for Cancer Management, Prospects of Prevention and Cure: Opinions of Cancer Scientific Leaders @

Whole-body imaging as cancer screening tool; answering an unmet clinical need?

Personalized Medicine: Cancer Cell Biology and Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS)

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Author: Ritu Saxena, PhD

Updated on July 5, 2013 (research article published in New England Journal of Medicine regarding the role of SALL4 gene in aggressive hepatocellular carcinoma)

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common malignant tumors in the world. The incidence of HCC varies considerably with the geographic area because of differences in the major causative factors. Chronic hepatitis B and C, mostly in the cirrhotic stage, are responsible for the great majority of cases of HCC worldwide.

Hepatitis B and C viruses (HBV/HCV) can be implicated in the development of HCC in an indirect way, through induction of chronic inflammation, or directly by means of viral proteins or, in the case of HBV, by creation of mutations by integration into the genome of the hepatocyte.

With the advent of genome sequencing methodologies, it was about time that the scientists look clues within the genome of HCC tumor cells that would provide clues for disease progression via virus integration into the liver cells.

Two studies published in the recent issue of Nature Genetics (May 2012) explored the genome of HCC cells for genetic mutations that might be related to HBV and HCV highlighting the types of genetic mutations that underlie the liver cancer hepatocellular carcinoma, including forms of the disease related to hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus infection.

In the first study, Sung et al performed an extensive whole genome analysis using a large sample size of 88 Chinese individuals with HCC This was in the fact first unbiased, genome-wide, HBV-integration map in HCC leading to new recurrent integration sites and molecular mechanisms.

Although integration of viral DNA sequence within HCC genome has been reported in several studies, however, fewer cases of recurring mutations within genes during these integrations have been studied. The reason might be limited sample size in these studies. Tumor and non-tumor adjacent liver cells were surveyed in 81 HBV positive and 7 HBV negative HCC tumor samples. After the survey of whole genome of the 88 patients, several viral integration sites were discovered referred to as breakpoints. The breakpoints were found to be much more common in tumor than normal samples. Although the observed breakpoints were randomly distributed across the genome, a handful or frequently occurring sites referred to as ‘hotspots’ were discovered. The frequency of integration revealed that there were five genes with recurring integrations in HBV tumors- TERT, MLL4, CCNE5, SENP1, and ROCK1.

Apart from genome analysis, expression levels of the 5 genes implicated in the study were determined. In other words, the levels of proteins formed from the genes were compared and it was observed that samples with HBV integration had significantly higher level of protein expression of TERT, MLL4 and CCNE5 than the samples harboring no HBV integration sites. Although not statistically significant, overexpression of SENP1 and ROCK1 genes was also observed in HBV integration samples. This lead to an important conclusion from the study that the five genes that harbor recurrent HBV integrations might be implicated in HCC tumor development and that overexpression of these proteins is a probable molecular mechanism of tumorigenesis.

Interestingly, analysis of the HBV analysis revealed that almost 40% of the HBV genomes were cleaved at approximately 1,800 bp and then integrated into the human genome. The cleaved HBV sites had the necessary machinery (enhancers and ORF replication sites) for protein formation.

The study also confirmed the popular belief that HBV integrations might worsen the prognosis of HCC patients revealing a significant correlation between the number of HBV integrations and the survival of patients.An interesting observation from the study that had not been reported before was that HBV integration was associated with the occurrence of HCC at a younger age.

The study presented convincing evidence that chromosomal instability of HCC genome may originate from HBV integration.

A parallel study published in the same issue of Nature Genetics explored the genome of HCC tumors to gain insights into HBV and HCV-related genomic alterations. The research team sequenced whole-exon (protein forming genomic regions) of 27 liver tumors from 25 patients and compared with the corresponding genome sequences from matched white blood cell samples.

The study involved both HBV-related and HCV-related tumors along with two samples of tumors from individuals without HBV or HCV infection. The genome wide sequencing of HCC tumor cells revealed several mutations that included deletions and mutations of genes with predicted functional consequences. “Considering the high complexity and heterogeneity of [hepatocellular carcinomas] of both etiological and genetic aspects,” they concluded, “further molecular classification is required for appropriate diagnosis and therapy in personalized medicine.” Additionally, recurrent alterations were observed in the four genes – ARID1ARPS6KA3NFE2L2 and IRF2 that had not been previously described in HCC. The comprehensive mutation pattern observed in the study might be indicative of specific mutagenesis mechanisms occurring in tumor cells.

Authors said “Although no common somatic mutations were identified in the multicentric tumor pairs,” further stating “their whole-genome substitution patterns were similar, suggesting that these tumors developed from independent mutations, although their shared etiological backgrounds may have strongly influenced their somatic mutation patterns.”The researchers suggested a major role of chromatin remodeling complexes and involvement of both interferon and oxidative stress pathways in hepatocellular malignant proliferation and transformation based on the genes showing recurrent mutations in the observed genes.

Thus, in both the studies new genes recurrently altered in HCC were identified along with uncovering some important clues relating to the molecular mechanism of virus-associated HCC.

Role of SALL4 in HCC

The oncofetal gene SALL4 is a marker of a subtype of HCC with progenitor-like features and is associated with a poor prognosis. Investigators at Cancer Science Institute of Singapore, National University of Singapore studied the role of oncofetal gene, SALL4 in HCC and the results were published were in a recent issue of New England Journal of Medicine ((Yong KJ, et al, Oncofetal Gene SALL4 in Aggressive Hepatocellular Carcinoma. Yong and colleagues (2013) screened specimens from patients with primary HCC for the expression of SALL4 and carried out a clinicopathological analysis. Loss-of-function studies were then performed to evaluate the role of SALL4 in hepatocarcinogenesis and its potential as a molecular target for therapy. Furthermore, in vitro functional and in vivo xenograft assays were performed to assess the therapeutic effects of a peptide that targets SALL4.

According to the results, SALL4 is an oncofetal protein that is expressed in the human fetal liver and silenced in the adult liver, but it is reexpressed in a subgroup of patients who have HCC and an unfavorable prognosis. Gene-expression analysis showed the enrichment of progenitor-like gene signatures with overexpression of proliferative and metastatic genes in SALL4-positive HCC. Loss-of-function studies confirmed the critical role of SALL4 in cell survival and tumorigenicity. The peptide targeting SALL4 blocked ­SALL4-corepressor interactions that released suppression of PTEN and inhibited tumor formation in xenograft assays in vivo. In conclusion, the results from the study indicate that SALL4 is a marker for a progenitor subclass of HCC with an aggressive phenotype. The absence of SALL4 expression in the healthy adult liver enhances the potential of SALL4 as a treatment target in HCC.

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