Posts Tagged ‘self-renewal’

Curbing Cancer Cell Growth & Metastasis-on-a-Chip’ Models Cancer’s Spread

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


New Approach to Curbing Cancer Cell Growth

Using a new approach, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and collaborating institutions have discovered a novel drug candidate that could be used to treat certain types of breast cancer, lung cancer and melanoma.

The new study focused on serine, one of the 20 amino acids (protein building blocks) found in nature. Many types of cancer require synthesis of serine to sustain rapid, constant and unregulated growth.

To find a drug candidate that interfered with this pathway, the team screened a large library of compounds from a variety of sources, searching for molecules that inhibited a specific enzyme known as 3-phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH), which is responsible for the first committed step in serine biosynthesis.

“In addition to discovering an inhibitor that targets cancer metabolism, we also now have a tool to help answer interesting questions about serine metabolism,” said Luke L. Lairson, assistant professor of chemistry at TSRI and principal investigator of cell biology at the California Institute for Biomedical Research (CALIBR).

Lairson was senior author of the study, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), with Lewis Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College and Costas Lyssiotis of the University of Michigan.

Addicted to Serine

Serine is necessary for nucleotide, protein and lipid biosynthesis in all cells. Cells use two main routes for acquiring serine: through import from the extracellular environment or through conversion of 3-phosphoglycerate (a glycolytic intermediate) by PHGDH.

“Since the late 1950s, it has been known that cancer cells use the process of aerobic glycolysis to generate metabolites needed for proliferative growth,” said Lairson.

This process can lead to an overproduction of serine. The genetic basis for this abundance had remained mysterious until recently, when it was demonstrated that some cancers acquire mutations that increased the expression of PHGDH; reducing PHGDH in these “serine-addicted” cancer cells also inhibited their growth.

The labs of Lewis C. Cantley at Weill Cornell Medical College (in work published in Nature Genetics) and David Sabatini at the Whitehead Institute (in work published in Nature) suggested PHGDH as a potential drug target for cancer types that overexpress the enzyme.

Lairson and colleagues hypothesized that a small molecule drug candidate that inhibited PHGDH could interfere with cancer metabolism and point the way to the development of an effective cancer therapeutic. Importantly, this drug candidate would be inactive against normal cells because they would be able to import enough serine to support ordinary growth.

As Easy as 1-2-800,000

Lairson, in collaboration with colleagues including Cantley, Lyssiotis, Edouard Mullarky of Weill Cornell and Harvard Medical School and Natasha Lucki of CALIBR, screened through a library of 800,000 small molecules using a high-throughput in vitro enzyme assay to detect inhibition of PHGDH. The group identified 408 candidates and further narrowed this list down based on cell-type specific anti-proliferative activity and by eliminating those inhibitors that broadly targeted other dehydrogenases.

With the successful identification of seven candidate inhibitors, the team sought to determine if these molecules could inhibit PHGDH in the complex cellular environment. To do so, the team used a mass spectrometry-based assay (test) to measure newly synthesized serine in a cell in the presence of the drug candidates.

One of the seven small molecules tested, named CBR-5884, was able to specifically inhibit serine synthesis by 30 percent, suggesting that the molecule specifically targeted PHGDH. The group went on to show that CBR-5884 was able to inhibit cell proliferation of breast cancer and melanoma cells lines that overexpress PHGDH.

As expected, CBR-5884 did not inhibit cancer cells that did not overexpress PHGDH, as they can import serine; however, when incubated in media lacking serine, the presence of CBR-5884 decreased growth in these cells.

The group anticipates much optimization work before this drug candidate can become an effective therapeutic. In pursuit of this goal, the researchers plan to take a medicinal chemistry approach to improve potency and metabolic stability.


How Cancer Stem Cells Thrive When Oxygen Is Scarce

(Image: Shutterstock)
image: Shutterstock

Working with human breast cancer cells and mice, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University say new experiments explain how certain cancer stem cells thrive in low oxygen conditions. Proliferation of such cells, which tend to resist chemotherapy and help tumors spread, are considered a major roadblock to successful cancer treatment.

The new research, suggesting that low-oxygen conditions spur growth through the same chain of biochemical events in both embryonic stem cells and breast cancer stem cells, could offer a path through that roadblock, the investigators say.

“There are still many questions left to answer but we now know that oxygen poor environments, like those often found in advanced human breast cancers serve as nurseries for the birth of cancer stem cells,” said Gregg Semenza, M.D., Ph.D., the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine and a member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. “That gives us a few more possible targets for drugs that diminish their threat in human cancer.”

A summary of the findings was published online March 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Aggressive cancers contain regions where the cancer cells are starved for oxygen and die off, yet patients with these tumors generally have the worst outcome. Our new findings tell us that low oxygen conditions actually encourage certain cancer stem cells to multiply through the same mechanism used by embryonic stem cells.”

All stem cells are immature cells known for their ability to multiply indefinitely and give rise to progenitor cells that mature into specific cell types that populate the body’s tissues during embryonic development. They also replenish tissues throughout the life of an organism. But stem cells found in tumors use those same attributes and twist them to maintain and enhance the survival of cancers.

Recent studies showed that low oxygen conditions increase levels of a family of proteins known as HIFs, or hypoxia-inducible factors, that turn on hundreds of genes, including one called NANOG that instructs cells to become stem cells.

Studies of embryonic stem cells revealed that NANOG protein levels can be lowered by a chemical process known as methylation, which involves putting a methyl group chemical tag on a protein’s messenger RNA (mRNA) precursor. Semenza said methylation leads to the destruction of NANOG’s mRNA so that no protein is made, which in turn causes the embryonic stem cells to abandon their stem cell state and mature into different cell types.

Zeroing in on NANOG, the scientists found that low oxygen conditions increased NANOG’s mRNA levels through the action of HIF proteins, which turned on the gene for ALKBH5, which decreased the methylation and subsequent destruction of NANOG’s mRNA. When they prevented the cells from making ALKBH5, NANOG levels and the number of cancer stem cells decreased. When the researchers manipulated the cell’s genetics to increase levels of ALKBH5 without exposing them to low oxygen, they found this also decreased methylation of NANOG mRNA and increased the numbers of breast cancer stem cells.

Finally, using live mice, the scientists injected 1,000 triple-negative breast cancer cells into their mammary fat pads, where the mouse version of breast cancer forms. Unaltered cells created tumors in all seven mice injected with such cells, but when cells missing ALKBH5 were used, they caused tumors in only 43 percent (six out of 14) of mice. “That confirmed for us that ALKBH5 helps preserve cancer stem cells and their tumor-forming abilities,” Semenza said.

How cancer stem cells thrive when oxygen is scarce

The new research, suggesting that low-oxygen conditions spur growth through the same chain of biochemical events in both embryonic stem cells and breast cancer stem cells, could offer a path through that roadblock, the investigators say.

“There are still many questions left to answer but we now know that oxygen poor environments, like those often found in advanced human breast cancers serve as nurseries for the birth of cancer stem cells,” says Gregg Semenza, M.D., Ph.D., the C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Medicine and a member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

Chuanzhao Zhang, Debangshu Samanta, Haiquan Lu, John W. Bullen, Huimin Zhang, Ivan Chen, Xiaoshun He, Gregg L. Semenza.
Hypoxia induces the breast cancer stem cell phenotype by HIF-dependent and ALKBH5-mediated m6A-demethylation of NANOG mRNA.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 201602883     DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1602883113


Pluripotency factors, such as NANOG, play a critical role in the maintenance and specification of cancer stem cells, which are required for primary tumor formation and metastasis. In this study, we report that exposure of breast cancer cells to hypoxia (i.e., reduced O2 availability), which is a critical feature of the tumor microenvironment, induces N6-methyladenosine (m6A) demethylation and stabilization of NANOG mRNA, thereby promoting the breast cancer stem cell (BCSC) phenotype. We show that inhibiting the expression of AlkB homolog 5 (ALKBH5), which demethylates m6A, or the hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) HIF-1α and HIF-2α, which activate ALKBH5 gene transcription in hypoxic breast cancer cells, is an effective strategy to decrease NANOG expression and target BCSCs in vivo.

N6-methyladenosine (m6A) modification of mRNA plays a role in regulating embryonic stem cell pluripotency. However, the physiological signals that determine the balance between methylation and demethylation have not been described, nor have studies addressed the role of m6A in cancer stem cells. We report that exposure of breast cancer cells to hypoxia stimulated hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF)-1α- and HIF-2α–dependent expression of AlkB homolog 5 (ALKBH5), an m6A demethylase, which demethylated NANOG mRNA, which encodes a pluripotency factor, at an m6A residue in the 3′-UTR. Increased NANOG mRNA and protein expression, and the breast cancer stem cell (BCSC) phenotype, were induced by hypoxia in an HIF- and ALKBH5-dependent manner. Insertion of the NANOG 3′-UTR into a luciferase reporter gene led to regulation of luciferase activity by O2, HIFs, and ALKBH5, which was lost upon mutation of the methylated residue. ALKBH5 overexpression decreased NANOG mRNA methylation, increased NANOG levels, and increased the percentage of BCSCs, phenocopying the effect of hypoxia. Knockdown of ALKBH5 expression in MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cells significantly reduced their capacity for tumor initiation as a result of reduced numbers of BCSCs. Thus, HIF-dependent ALKBH5 expression mediates enrichment of BCSCs in the hypoxic tumor microenvironment.

Specific Proteins Found to Jump Start Spread of Cancer Cells

Metastatic breast cancer cells. [National Cancer Institute]

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Moores Cancer Center, with colleagues in Spain and Germany, have discovered how elevated levels of particular proteins in cancer cells trigger hyperactivity in other proteins, fueling the growth and spread of a variety of cancers. Their study (“Prognostic Impact of Modulators of G Proteins in Circulating Tumor Cells from Patients with Metastatic Colorectal Cancer”) is published in Scientific Reports.

Specifically, the international team, led by senior author Pradipta Ghosh, M.D., associate professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, found that increased levels of expression of some members of a protein family called guanine nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs) triggered unsuspected hyperactivation of G proteins and subsequent progression or metastasis of cancer.

The discovery suggests GEFs offer a new and more precise indicator of disease state and prognosis. “We found that elevated expression of each GEF is associated with a shorter, progression-free survival in patients with metastatic colorectal cancer,” said Dr. Ghosh. “The GEFs fared better as prognostic markers than two well-known markers of cancer progression, and the clustering of all GEFs together improved the predictive accuracy of each individual family member.”

In recent years, circulating tumor cells (CTCs), which are shed from primary tumors into the bloodstream and act as seeds for new tumors taking root in other parts of the body, have become a prognostic and predictive biomarker. The presence of CTCs is used to monitor the efficacy of therapies and detect early signs of metastasis.

But counting CTCs in the bloodstream has limited utility, said Dr. Ghosh. “Enumeration alone does not capture the particular characteristics of CTCs that are actually tumorigenic and most likely to cause additional malignancies.”

Numerous efforts are underway to improve the value and precision of CTC analysis. According to Dr. Ghosh the new findings are a step in that direction. First, GEFs activate trimeric G proteins, and second, G protein signaling is involved in CTCs. G proteins are ubiquitous and essential molecular switches involved in transmitting external signals from stimuli into cells’ interiors. They have been a subject of heightened scientific interest for many years.

Dr. Ghosh and colleagues found that elevated expression of nonreceptor GEFs activates Gαi proteins, fueling CTCs and ultimately impacting the disease course and survival of cancer patients.

“Our work shows the prognostic impact of elevated expression of individual and clustered GEFs on survival and the benefit of transcriptome analysis of G protein regulatory proteins in cancer biology,” said Dr. Ghosh. “The next step will be to carry this technology into the clinic where it can be applied directly to deciphering a patient’s state of cancer and how best to treat.”

Metastasis-on-a-Chip’ Models Cancer’s Spread

In the journal Biotechnology Bioengineering, the team reports on its “metastasis-on-a-chip” system believed to be one of the first laboratory models of cancer spreading from one 3D tissue to another.

The current version of the system models a colorectal tumor spreading from the colon to the liver, the most common site of metastasis. Skardal said future versions could include additional organs, such as the lung and bone marrow, which are also potential sites of metastasis. The team also plans to model other types of cancer, such as the deadly brain tumor glioblastoma

To create the system, researchers encapsulated human intestine and colorectal cancer cells inside a biocompatible gel-like material to make a mini-organ. A mini-liver composed of human liver cells was made in the same way. These organoids were placed in a “chip” system made up of a set of micro-channels and chambers etched into the chip’s surface to mimic a simplified version of the body’s circulatory system. The tumor cells were tagged with fluorescent molecules so their activity could be viewed under a microscope.

To test whether the system could model metastasis, the researchers first used highly aggressive cancer cells in the colon organoid. Under the microscope, they saw the tumor grow in the colon organoid until the cells broke free, entered the circulatory system and then invaded the liver tissue, where another tumor formed and grew. When a less aggressive form of colon cancer was used in the system, the tumor did not metastasize, but continued to grow in the colon.

To test the system’s potential for screening drugs, the team introduced Marimastat, a drug used to inhibit metastasis in human patients, into the system and found that it significantly prevented the migration of metastatic cells over a 10-day period. Likewise, the team also tested 5-fluorouracil, a common colorectal cancer drug, which reduced the metabolic activity of the tumor cells.

“We are currently exploring whether other established anti-cancer drugs have the same effects in the system as they do in patients,” said Skardal. “If this link can be validated and expanded, we believe the system can be used to screen drug candidates for patients as a tool in personalized medicine. If we can create the same model systems, only with tumor cells from an actual patient, then we believe we can use this platform to determine the best therapy for any individual patient.”

The scientists are currently working to refine their system. They plan to use 3D printing to create organoids more similar in function to natural organs. And they aim to make the process of metastasis more realistic. When cancer spreads in the human body, the tumor cells must break through blood vessels to enter the blood steam and reach other organs. The scientists plan to add a barrier of endothelial cells, the cells that line blood vessels, to the model.

This concept of modeling the body’s processes on a miniature level is made possible because of advances in micro-tissue engineering and micro-fluidics technologies. It is similar to advances in the electronics industry made possible by miniaturizing electronics on a chip.

Scientists Synthesize Anti-Cancer Agent

A schematic shows a trioxacarcin C molecule, whose structure was revealed for the first time through a new process developed by the Rice lab of synthetic organic chemist K.C. Nicolaou. Trioxacarcins are found in bacteria but synthetic versions are needed to study them for their potential as medications. Trioxacarcins have anti-cancer properties. Source: Nicolaou Group/Rice University
A schematic shows a trioxacarcin C molecule, whose structure was revealed for the first time through a new process developed by the Rice lab of synthetic organic chemist K.C. Nicolaou. Trioxacarcins are found in bacteria but synthetic versions are needed to study them for their potential as medications. Trioxacarcins have anti-cancer properties. Source: Nicolaou Group/Rice University

A team led by Rice University synthetic organic chemist K.C. Nicolaou has developed a new process for the synthesis of a series of potent anti-cancer agents originally found in bacteria.

The Nicolaou lab finds ways to replicate rare, naturally occurring compounds in larger amounts so they can be studied by biologists and clinicians as potential new medications. It also seeks to fine-tune the molecular structures of these compounds through analog design and synthesis to improve their disease-fighting properties and lessen their side effects.

Such is the case with their synthesis of trioxacarcins, reported this month in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Not only does this synthesis render these valuable molecules readily available for biological investigation, but it also allows the previously unknown full structural elucidation of one of them,” Nicolaou said. “The newly developed synthetic technologies will allow us to construct variations for biological evaluation as part of a program to optimize their pharmacological profiles.”

At present, there are no drugs based on trioxacarcins, which damage DNA through a novel mechanism, Nicolaou said.

Trioxacarcins were discovered in the fermentation broth of the bacterial strain Streptomyces bottropensis. They disrupt the replication of cancer cells by binding and chemically modifying their genetic material.

“These molecules are endowed with powerful anti-tumor properties,” Nicolaou said. “They are not as potent as shishijimicin, which we also synthesized recently, but they are more powerful than taxol, the widely used anti-cancer drug. Our objective is to make it more powerful through fine-tuning its structure.”

He said his lab is working with a biotechnology partner to pair these cytotoxic compounds (called payloads) to cancer cell-targeting antibodies through chemical linkers. The process produces so-called antibody-drug conjugates as drugs to treat cancer patients. “It’s one of the latest frontiers in personalized targeting chemotherapies,” said Nicolaou, who earlier this year won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Chemistry.

Fluorescent Nanoparticle Tracks Cancer Treatment’s Effectiveness in Hours

Bevin Fletcher, Associate Editor

Using reporter nanoparticles loaded with either a chemotherapy or immunotherapy, researchers could distinguish between drug-sensitive and drug-resistant tumors in a pre-clinical model of prostate cancer. (Source: Brigham and Women's Hospital)

Using reporter nanoparticles loaded with either a chemotherapy or immunotherapy, researchers could distinguish between drug-sensitive and drug-resistant tumors in a pre-clinical model of prostate cancer. (Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital)

Bioengineers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a new technique to help determine if chemotherapy is working in as few as eight hours after treatment. The new approach, which can also be used for monitoring the effectiveness of immunotherapy, has shown success in pre-clinical models.

The technology utilizes a nanoparticle, carrying anti-cancer drugs, that glows green when cancer cells begin dying. Researchers, using  the “reporter nanoparticles” that responds to a particular enzyme known as caspase, which is activated when cells die, were able to distinguish between a tumor that is drug-sensitive or drug-resistant much faster than conventional detection methods such as PET scans, CT and MRI.  The findings were published online March 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Using this approach, the cells light up the moment a cancer drug starts working,” co-corresponding author Shiladitya Sengupta, Ph.D., principal investigator in BWH’s Division of Bioengineering, said in a prepared statement.  “We can determine if a cancer therapy is effective within hours of treatment.  Our long-term goal is to find a way to monitor outcomes very early so that we don’t give a chemotherapy drug to patients who are not responding to it.”

Cancer killers send signal of success

Nanoparticles deliver drug, then give real-time feedback when tumor cells die   BY   SARAH SCHWARTZ

New lab-made nanoparticles deliver cancer drugs into tumors, then report their effects in real time by lighting up in response to proteins produced by dying cells. More light (right, green) indicates a tumor is responding to chemotherapy.

Tiny biochemical bundles carry chemotherapy drugs into tumors and light up when surrounding cancer cells start dying. Future iterations of these lab-made particles could allow doctors to monitor the effects of cancer treatment in real time, researchers report the week of March 28 in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the first system that allows you to read out whether your drug is working or not,” says study coauthor Shiladitya Sengupta, a bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Each roughly 100-nanometer-wide particle consists of a drug and a fluorescent dye linked to a coiled molecular chain. Before the particles enter cells, the dye is tethered to a “quencher” molecule that prevents it from lighting up. When injected into the bloodstream of a mouse with cancer, the nanoparticles accumulate in tumor cells and release the drug, which activates a protein that tears a cancer cell apart. This cell-splitting protein not only kills the tumor cell, but also severs the link between the dye and the quencher, allowing the nanoparticles to glow under infrared light.

Reporter nanoparticle that monitors its anticancer efficacy in real time

Ashish Kulkarnia,b,1,Poornima Raoa,b,Siva Natarajana,b,Aaron Goldman, et al.

The ability to identify responders and nonresponders very early during chemotherapy by direct visualization of the activity of the anticancer treatment and to switch, if necessary, to a regimen that is effective can have a significant effect on the outcome as well as quality of life. Current approaches to quantify response rely on imaging techniques that fail to detect very early responses. In the case of immunotherapy, the early anatomical readout is often discordant with the biological response. This study describes a self-reporting nanomedicine that not only delivers chemotherapy or immunotherapy to the tumor but also reports back on its efficacy in real time, thereby identifying responders and nonresponders early on

The ability to monitor the efficacy of an anticancer treatment in real time can have a critical effect on the outcome. Currently, clinical readouts of efficacy rely on indirect or anatomic measurements, which occur over prolonged time scales postchemotherapy or postimmunotherapy and may not be concordant with the actual effect. Here we describe the biology-inspired engineering of a simple 2-in-1 reporter nanoparticle that not only delivers a cytotoxic or an immunotherapy payload to the tumor but also reports back on the efficacy in real time. The reporter nanoparticles are engineered from a novel two-staged stimuli-responsive polymeric material with an optimal ratio of an enzyme-cleavable drug or immunotherapy (effector elements) and a drug function-activatable reporter element. The spatiotemporally constrained delivery of the effector and the reporter elements in a single nanoparticle produces maximum signal enhancement due to the availability of the reporter element in the same cell as the drug, thereby effectively capturing the temporal apoptosis process. Using chemotherapy-sensitive and chemotherapy-resistant tumors in vivo, we show that the reporter nanoparticles can provide a real-time noninvasive readout of tumor response to chemotherapy. The reporter nanoparticle can also monitor the efficacy of immune checkpoint inhibition in melanoma. The self-reporting capability, for the first time to our knowledge, captures an anticancer nanoparticle in action in vivo.


Cancer Treatment’s New Direction  
Genetic testing helps oncologists target tumors and tailor treatments

Evan Johnson had battled a cold for weeks, endured occasional nosebleeds and felt so fatigued he struggled to finish his workouts at the gym. But it was the unexplained bruises and chest pain that ultimately sent the then 23-year-old senior at the University of North Dakota to the Mayo Clinic. There a genetic test revealed a particularly aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia. That was two years ago.

The harrowing roller-coaster that followed for Mr. Johnson and his family highlights new directions oncologists are taking with genetic testing to find and attack cancer. Tumors can evolve to resist treatments, and doctors are beginning to turn such setbacks into possible advantages by identifying new targets to attack as the tumors change.

His course involved a failed stem cell transplant, a half-dozen different drug regimens, four relapses and life-threatening side effects related to his treatment.

Nine months in, his leukemia had evolved to develop a surprising new mutation. The change meant the cancer escaped one treatment, but the new anomaly provided doctors with a fresh target, one susceptible to drugs approved for other cancers. Doctors adjusted Mr. Johnson’s treatment accordingly, knocked out the disease and paved the way for a second, more successful stem cell transplant. He has now been free of leukemia for a year.

Now patients with advanced cancer who are treated at major centers can expect to have their tumors sequenced, in hopes of finding a match in a growing medicine chest of drugs that precisely target mutations that drive cancer’s growth. When they work, such matches can have a dramatic effect on tumors. But these “precision medicines” aren’t cures. They are often foiled when tumors evolve, pushing doctors to take the next step to identify new mutations in hopes of attacking them with an effective treatment.

Dr. Kasi and his Mayo colleagues—Naseema Gangat, a hematologist, and Shahrukh Hashmi, a transplant specialist—are among the authors of an account of Mr. Johnson’s case published in January in the journal Leukemia Research Reports.

Before qualifying for a transplant, a patient’s blasts need to be under 5%.

To get under 5%, he started on a standard chemotherapy regimen and almost immediately, things went south. His blast cells plummeted, but “the chemo just wiped out my immune system,”

Then as mysteriously as it began, a serious mycotic throat infection stopped. But Mr. Johnson couldn’t tolerate the chemo, and his blast cells were on the rise. A two-drug combination that included the liver cancer drug Nexavar, which targets the FLT3 mutation, knocked back the blast cells. But the stem cell transplant in May, which came from one of his brothers, failed to take, and he relapsed after 67 days, around late July.

He was put into a clinical trial of an experimental AML drug being developed by Astellas Pharma of Japan. He started to regain weight. In November 2014, doctors spotted the initial signs in blood tests that Mr. Johnson’s cancer was evolving to acquire a new mutation. By late January, he relapsed again , but there was a Philadelphia chromosome mutation,  a well-known genetic alteration associated with chronic myeloid leukemia. It also is a target of the blockbuster cancer drug Gleevec and several other medicines.

Clonal evolution of AML on novel FMS-like tyrosine kinase-3 (FLT3) inhibitor therapy with evolving actionable targets

Naseema GangatMark R. LitzowMrinal M. PatnaikShahrukh K. HashmiNaseema Gangat

•   The article reports on a case of AML that underwent clonal evolution.
•   We report on novel acquisition of the Philadelphia t(9;22) translocation in AML.
•   Next generation sequencing maybe helpful in these refractory/relapse cases.
•   Novel FLT3-inhibitor targeted therapies are another option in patients with AML.
•   Personalizing cancer treatment based on evolving targets is a viable option.

For acute myeloid leukemia (AML), identification of activating mutations in the FMS-like tyrosine kinase-3 (FLT3) has led to the development of several FLT3-inhibitors. Here we present clinical and next generation sequencing data at the time of progression of a patient on a novel FLT3-inhibitor clinical trial (ASP2215) to show that employing therapeutic interventions with these novel targeted therapies can lead to consequences secondary to selective pressure and clonal evolution of cancer. We describe novel findings alongside data on treatment directed towards actionable aberrations acquired during the process. (Clinical Trial: NCT02014558; registered at: 〈〉)

The development of kinase inhibitors for the treatment of leukemia has revolutionized the care of these patients. Since the introduction of imatinib for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, multiple other tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) have become available[1]. Additionally, for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), identification of activating mutations in the FMS-like tyrosine kinase-3 (FLT3) has led to the development of several FLT3-inhibitors [2], [3], [4] and [5]. The article herein reports a unique case of AML that underwent clonal evolution while on a novel FLT3-inhibitor clinical trial.

Our work herein presents clinical and next generation sequencing data at the time of progression to illustrate these important concepts stemming from Darwinian evolution [6]. We describe novel findings alongside data on treatment directed towards actionable aberrations acquired during the process.

Our work focuses on a 23-year-old male who presented with 3 months history of fatigue and easy bruising, a white blood count of 22.0×109/L with 51% circulating blasts, hemoglobin 7.6 g/dL, and a platelet count of 43×109/L. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of AML. Initial cytogenetic studies identified trisomy 8 in all the twenty metaphases examined. Mutational analysis revealed an internal tandem duplication of the FLT3 gene (FLT3-ITD).

He received standard induction chemotherapy (7+3) with cytarabine (ARA-C; 100 mg/m2for 7 days) and daunorubicin (DNM; 60 mg/m2 for 3 days). His induction chemotherapy was complicated by severe palatine and uvular necrosis of indeterminate etiology (possible mucormycosis).

Bone marrow biopsy at day 28 demonstrated persistent disease with 10% bone marrow blasts (Fig. 1). Due to his complicated clinical course and the presence of a FLT3-ITD, salvage therapy with 5-azacitidine (5-AZA) and sorafenib (SFN) was instituted. Table 1.
The highlighted therapies were employed in this particular case at various time points as shown in Fig. 1.


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    • J.E. Cortes, D.W. Kim, J. Pinilla-Ibarz, et al.
    • A phase 2 trial of ponatinib in Philadelphia chromosome-positive leukemias
    • New Engl. J. Med., 369 (19) (2013), pp. 1783–1796
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Writer and curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP and
Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

There is an explosion of work-in-progress in applications to regenerative medicine using inducible pluripotent stem cells in both endothelial and cardiomyocyte postischemic repair, and also in post bone marrow radiation restoration, with benefits and hazards.  The following article is quite novel in that it deals with stem cell regulation by DNA methylation.  Therefore, it deals with the essentiality of methylation of DNA in epigenetic regulation.

This is the fourth discussion of a several part series leading from the genome, to protein synthesis (1), posttranslational modification of proteins (2), examples of protein effects on metabolism and signaling pathways (3), and leading to disruption of signaling pathways in disease (4), and effects leading to mutagenesis.

1.  A Primer on DNAand DNA Replication

2.  Overview of translational medicine

3.  Genes, proteomes, and their interaction

4. Regulation of somatic stem cell Function

5.  Proteomics – The Pathway to Understanding and Decision-making in Medicine

6.  Genomics, Proteomics and standards

7.  Long Non-coding RNAs Can Encode Proteins After All

8.  Proteins and cellular adaptation to stress

9.  Loss of normal growth regulation


Posttranslational modification is a step in protein biosynthesis. Proteins are created by ribosomes translating mRNA into polypeptide chains. These polypeptide chains undergo
PTM before becoming the mature protein product.

Regulation of somatic stem cell Function by DNA Methylation and Genomic Imprinting

Mo Li1, Na Young Kim1, Shigeo Masuda1 and Juan Carlos izpisua Belmonte1,2 1Salk institute for Biological Studies, 10010 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA. 2Center of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona, Dr Aiguader, 88, 08003 Barcelona, Spain. Corresponding author email:

Cell & Tissue Transplantation & Therapy 2013:5 19–23
This article is available from


Epigenetic regulation is essential for self-renewal and differentiation of somatic stem cells, including

  • hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and
  • neural stem cells (NSCs).

The role of DNA methylation, a key epigenetic pathway,

  • in regulating somatic stem cell function
    • under physiological conditions and during aging

has been intensively investigated.

Accumulating evidence highlights the dynamic nature of

  • the DNAmethylome
    • during lineage commitment of somatic stem cells and
  • the pivotal role of DNAmethyltransferases in
    • stem cell self-renewal and differentiation.

Recent studies on genomic imprinting have shed light on

  • the imprinted gene network (IGN) in somatic stem cells,
  1. where a subset of imprinted genes remain expressed and
  2. are important for maintaining self-renewal of these cells.

Together with emerging technologies, elucidation of the epigenetic mechanisms regulating somatic stem cells with normal or pathological functions may contribute to the development of regenerative medicine.

Keywords: somatic stem cells, epigenetics, DNA methylation, genomic imprinting, hematopoietic stem cells, neural stem cells


In adult animals, somatic stem cells (also known as adult stem cells) are responsible for maintaining tissue homeostasis and participate in tissue regeneration under injury conditions. Self-renewal and differentiation are two important aspects of somatic stem cell function. Epigenetic mechanisms underlying these processes have been intensively investigated. With the increasing ability

  • to identify and manipulate somatic stem cell populations from diverse tissues,
  • it is possible to dissect the epigenetic pathways that are
  1. either unique for a specific tissue or
  2. universally important in regulating stemness and differentiation.

Epigenetic control of somatic stem cell function exists at various levels, including

  • DNA methylation,
  • histone modification, and
  • higher-order chromatin structure dynamics.

Here, we focus on recent progress in our understanding of how

  • DNA methylation regulates somatic stem cell function.

DNA Methylation and stem cell Function

The role of DNA methylation in somatic stem cell compartments has gained increasing attention. Recent  evidence has shown that

  • DNA methylation is dynamically regulated during somatic stem cell differentiation and aging.1

A study of methylomes of human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and two mature hematopoietic lineages,

  • including B cells and neutrophils, showed that
    • hypomethylated regions of lineage-specific genes often become methylated in opposing lineages, and that
    • progenitors display an intermediate methylation pattern

that is poised for lineage-specific resolution.2

Another study compared genome-wide promoter DNA methylation in human cord blood hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) with

  • that in mobilized peripheral blood HPCs from aged individuals.

It was found that aged HPCs lose DNA methylation in a subset of genes that are hypomethylated in differentiated myeloid cells and

  • gain de novo DNA methylation at polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) target sites.3

It was hypothesized that such epigenetic changes contribute to age-related loss of HSC function, such as a bias toward myeloid lineages. Recently, Beerman et al. studied the global DNA methylation landscape of HSCs in the context of

  • age-associated decline of HSC function.4

Over- all, the DNA methylation landscape remains stable during HSC ontogeny. However, HSCs isolated from old mice display higher global DNA methylation. Interestingly, they observed

  • localized DNA methylation changes in genomic regions associated with hematopoietic lineage differentiation.

These methylation changes preferentially map to genes

  • that are expressed in downstream progenitor and effector cells.

For example, genes that are important for the lymphoid and erythroid lineages

  • become methylated in “old” HSCs,

which is consistent with

  • the decline of lymphopoiesis and erythropoiesis during aging.

Additionally, inducing HSC proliferation by 5-fluorouracil treatment or

  • by limiting the number of transplantedHSCs
    • recapitulates the functional decline and DNA methylation changes during physiological aging.

A closer examination of the overlapping genes with significant DNA methylation changes during aging or enforced proliferation showed

  • an enrichment of DNA hypermethylation at PRC2 target loci,

echoing the observation by Bocker et al. in human HSCs.

Interestingly, a recent report showed that epigenetic alterations such as DNA hypermethylation that are accrued during aging,

  • can be fully reset by somatic reprogramming,

raising an interesting possibility that these aging-related epigenetic defects may be reserved by small molecules.5

Methylation of cytosines at CpG dinucleotides is catalyzed by three key enzymes.

DNA (cytosine-5)- methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1) is responsible for maintaining DNA methylation patterns during DNA replication

  • by methylating the newly synthesized hemi-methylated DNA.

The other two DNA methyltransferases, DNMT3a and DNMT3b,

  • are not DNA replication-dependent and can methylate fully unmethylated DNA de novo.

They are responsible for establishing new DNA methylation patterns during development.

DNMT3a, a gene required for neurogenesis,

  • is expressed in postnatal neural stem cells (NSCs).

In NSCs, DNMT3a methylates non-proximal promoter regions, such as gene bodies and intergenic regions. Surprisingly, rather than silencing gene expression,

DNMT3a-mediated DNA methylation in gene bodies antagonizes Polycomb-dependent repression and

  • facilitates the expression of neurogenic genes.6

The role of DNMT3a in HSCs has also been investigated. Both Dnmt3a and Dnmt3b are expressed in HSCs. An earlier study did not identify any defects in HSC function when Dnmt3a or Dnmt3b was removed.  However,

  • HSCs lackingboth of these de novomethyltransferases
    • fail to self-renew, yet retain the capacity to differentiate.7

A more recent study re-examined

  • the consequences of Dnmt3a loss in HSCs and
  • uncovered a progressive defect in differentiation that is only manifested during serial transplantation.8

At the molecular level, while Dnmt3a loss results in the expected hypomethylation at some loci,

  • it counterintuitively causes hypermethylation in even more regions.8

This seemingly paradoxical result echoes the  unconventional role of Dnmt3a in transcriptional  activation in NSCs (as discussed above). Both cases suggest a more complex regulatory function of DNMT3a that is

  • beyond simply methylating DNA.

In contrast, the loss of Dnmt1 produces more dramatic and immediate phenotypes in HSCs, manifested

  • in premature HSC exhaustion and
  • block of lymphoid differentiation,

highlighting the distinct requirements for different DNA methyltransferases in HSCs.9,10

Genomic Imprinting and stemness

DNA methylation also underlies genomic imprinting, which is an

  • evolutionarily conserved epigenetic mechanism of ensuring appropriate gene dosage during development.

One allele of the imprinted genes is

  • epigenetically marked by DNA methylation to be silenced according to the parental origin.

The pattern of imprinting

  • is established in germ cells and maintained in somatic cells.

Imprinted genes are thought to play critical roles in organismal growth and are relatively downregulated after birth.11 Recently, a series of reports demonstrated that

  • a subset of imprinted genes belonging to the purported imprinted gene network (IGN)12
  • remain expressed in somatic stem cells and
  • are important for maintaining self-renewal of these cells.

Through gene expression profiling, one group identified that several members of the IGN are expressed in

  1. murine muscle,
  2. epidermal, and
  3. long-term hematopoietic stem cells
  4. as well as in human epidermal and hematopoietic stem cells.13

In particular, the paternally expressed gene 3 (Peg3) gene was shown by another group

  • to mark cycling and quiescent stem cells in a wide variety of mouse tissues.14

The role of imprinted genes in regulating somatic stem cell function has been examined in two types of tissues.

In bronchioalveolar stem cells (BASCs), a lung epithelial stem cell population,

  • expression of IGN members is required for their self-renewal.

Bmi1, a polycomb repressive  complex 1 (PRC1) subunit,

  • is essential for controlling the expression of imprinted genes in BASCs without affecting their imprinting status.15

In Bmi1 mutant BASCs,  many members of the IGN become derepressed,

  • including p57, H19, Dlk1, Peg3, Ndn, Mest, Gtl2, Grb10, Plagl1, and Igf2.

Knockdown of p57, which is the most differentially expressed imprinted gene between normal and mutant BASCs,

  • partially rescues the self-renewal defect of lung stem cells.

Interestingly, insufficient levels of p57 also inhibit self-renewal of lung stem cells. Because p57 expression

  • remains monoallelic in Bmi1 knockdown cells,
  • Bmi1 is thought to maintain an appropriate level of expression from the expressed allele of p57.15

Another IGN member- delta-like homologue 1 (Dlk1) has been shown to be important for postnatal neurogenesis. Interestingly, in this context,

  • Dlk1 loses its imprinting in postnatal neural stem cells and niche astrocytes.16

These studies suggest that modulating IGN may represent another

  • epigenetic mechanism for balancing self-renewal and differentiation in somatic stem cells.

Thus, somatic stem cells either co-opt or remodel these developmental pathways involving the IGN

  • to fulfill the needs of tissue homeostasis during the adult stage.

In summary, several factors participate in regulating the epigenome of somatic stem cells.

Perturbations in the epigenome of somatic stem cells,

  • either during organismal aging or under pathological conditions,

will tip the balance between self-renewal and differentiation of somatic stem cells (Fig. 1). A detailed understanding of the mechanisms underlying these changes will likely result in novel therapeutic approaches targeting somatic stem cells.

Figure 1. The epigenome of somatic stem cells is regulated by diverse factors.

Future perspectives The epigenetic mechanisms governing self-renewal and differentiation of somatic stem cells are likely to be complex because of the diverse needs of different tissues. It would be interesting to determine whether a common mechanism, such as the IGN, exists across different somatic stem cells. Additionally, study- ing epigenetic pathways that are specific to one type of somatic stem cell requires the isolation of these cells and their differentiated progeny, which is more practical in model organisms than in humans. Along these lines, developing robust in vitro culture methods for human somatic stem cells and protocols for differentiating these cells into specific lineages are critical for uncovering epigenetic pathways that are unique to human somatic stem cells. In recent years, the field has seen a great improvement in methods of directed differentiation of human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). For example, it is relatively straightforward to produce high-purity cell populations that resemble neural stem cells or mesenchymal stem cells from iPSCs.17

These methodologies not only are useful for studying the normal function of somatic stem cells, but also provide an exciting opportunity for understanding the role of somatic stem cells in disease pathology and a platform to screen for drugs. A recent study under- scored the usefulness of this approach. Liu et al. studied neural stem cells derived from Parkinson’s disease human iPSCs and uncovered previously unknown defects in nuclear morphology and epigenetic regulation in these derived NSCs.18 The cellular defects only menifest in “aged” neural stem cells, which is consistent with the fact that Parkinson’s disease pri- marily manifests in old age. More  importantly, this study identified neural stem cell as a potential target of therapeutic intervention for Parkinson’s disease.

Targeted modification of the human genome is  another technological advancement that is on the horizon to greatly facilitate the dissection of epige- netic pathways in somatic stem cells. Although gene targeting in somatic stem cells has been historically challenging, there have been encouraging successful reports following development of new genome-e diting technologies, such as Helper-dependent adenovi- ral vectors, TALENs, and CAS9/CRISPR. With the development of these new technologies, it seems that the stage has been set for a new wave of discoveries in epigenetic mechanisms of somatic stem cells.


1. Li M, Liu GH, Izpisua Belmonte JC. Navigating the epigenetic landscape of pluripotent stem cells. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2012;13(8):524–535.

2. Hodges E, Molaro A, Dos Santos CO, et al. Directional DNA methylation changes and complex intermediate states accompany lineage specificity in the adult hematopoietic compartment. Mol Cell. 2011;44(1):17–28.

3. Bocker MT, Hellwig I, Breiling A, Eckstein V, Ho AD, Lyko F. Genome- wide promoter DNA methylation dynamics of human hematopoietic progen- itor cells during differentiation and aging. Blood. 2011;117(19):e182–e189.

4. Beerman I, Bock C, Garrison BS, et al. Proliferation-dependent alterations of the DNA methylation landscape underlie hematopoietic stem cell aging. Cell Stem Cell. 2013;12(4):413–425.

5. Wahlestedt M, Norddahl GL, Sten G, et al. An epigenetic component of hematopoietic stem cell aging amenable to reprogramming into a young state. Blood. 2013;121(21):4257–4264.

6. Wu H, Coskun V, Tao J, et al. Dnmt3a-dependent nonpromoter DNA methylation facilitates transcription of neurogenic genes. Science. 2010; 329(5990):444–448.

7. Tadokoro Y, Ema H, Okano M, Li E, Nakauchi H. De novo DNA meth- yltransferase is essential for self-renewal, but not for differentiation, in hematopoietic stem cells. J Exp Med. 2007;204(4):715–722.

8. Challen GA, Sun D, Jeong M, et al. Dnmt3a is essential for hematopoietic stem cell differentiation. Nat Genet. 2011;44(1):23–31.

9. Broske AM, Vockentanz L, Kharazi S, et al. DNA methylation protects hematopoietic stem cell multipotency from myeloerythroid restriction. Nat Genet. 2009;41(11):1207–1215.

10. Trowbridge JJ, Snow JW, Kim J, Orkin SH. DNA methyltransferase 1 is essential for and uniquely regulates hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells. Cell Stem Cell. 2009;5(4):442–449.

11. Wood AJ, Oakey RJ. Genomic imprinting in mammals: emerging themes and established theories. PLoS Genet. 2006;2(11):e147.

12. Lui JC, Finkielstain GP, Barnes KM, Baron J. An imprinted gene network that controls mammalian somatic growth is down-regulated during postna- tal growth deceleration in multiple organs. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2008;295(1):R189–R196.

13. Berg JS, Lin KK, Sonnet C, et al. Imprinted genes that regulate early mam- malian growth are coexpressed in somatic stem cells. PLoS One. 2011; 6(10):e26410.

14. Besson V, Smeriglio P, Wegener A, et al. PW1 gene/paternally expressed gene 3 (PW1/Peg3) identifies multiple adult stem and progenitor cell popu- lations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(28):11470–11475.

15. Zacharek SJ, Fillmore CM, Lau AN, et al. Lung stem cell self-renewal relies on BMI1-dependent control of expression at imprinted loci. Cell Stem Cell. 2011;9(3):272–281.

16. Ferron SR, Charalambous M, Radford E, et al. Postnatal loss of Dlk1 imprinting in stem cells and niche astrocytes regulates neurogenesis. Nature. 2011;475(7356):381–385.

17. Li W, Sun W, Zhang Y, et al. Rapid induction and long-term self-renewal of primitive neural precursors from human embryonic stem cells by small molecule inhibitors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(20):8299–8304.

18. Liu GH, Qu J, Suzuki K, et al. Progressive degeneration of human neural stem cells caused by pathogenic LRRK2. Nature. 2012;491(7425):603–607.


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Author and Curator: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D

Although cancer stem cells constitute only a small percentage of the tumor burden, their self-renewal capacity and possible link with recurrence of cancer post treatment makes them a sought after therapeutic target in cancer. The post on cancer stem cells published on the 22nd of March, 2013, describes the identity of CSCs, their functional characteristics, possible cell of origin and biomarkers. This post focuses on the therapeutic potential of CSCs, their resistance to conventional anti-tumor therapies and current therapeutic targets including biomarkers, signaling pathways and niches.

CSCs Are Resistant to conventional anticancer therapies including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery that are used either alone or in combination. However, these strategies have failed several times to eradicate CSCs resulting in metastasis and relapse, hence, a fatal disease outcome.

The properties of CSCs that contribute to or lead to chemoresistance include:

Quiescent Phenotype

Chemotherapeutic agents target fast-growing cells; however, some CSCs that remain in the dormant or quiescent stage are spared from lethal damage. Later, when the dormant CSCs enter cell cycle, tumor proliferation is stimulated.


Antiapoptotic proteins such as BCL-2 and some self-renewal pathways such as transforming growth factor β, Wnt/ β -catenin or BMI-1 are activated in CSCs. Consequently, DNA damage repair capability of CSCs is enhanced after genotoxic stress or activation of autocrine loops through the production of growth factors like epidermal growth factor (Moserle L, Cancer Lett, 1 Feb 2010;288(1):1-9).

Expression of Drug Efflux Pumps

CSCs express some proteins that have typically been known to contribute to multidrug resistance. The proteins are drug efflux pumps ABCC1, ABCG2 or MDR1. Multidrug resistance-associated proteins (ABCC subfamily) are members of the ATP-binding cassette (ABC) superfamily of transport proteins and act as cellular efflux transporters for a wide variety of substrates, in particular glutathione, glucuronide and sulfate conjugates of diverse compounds.

Radiotherapy is mainly used in breast cancer and glioblastoma multiforme. In glioblastoma multiforme, the properties of CSCs that contribute to radiotherapy resistance is the presence of CD133 marker. CD133+ CSCs preferentially activate DNA damage repair pathway and significantly induced checkpoint kinases that leads to reduced apoptosis in CSCs compared to the CD133- tumor cells (Bao S, Nature, 7 Dec 2006;444(7120):756-60).

Radiotherapy resistance in breast cancer is due to reduced levels of reactive oxygen species in CSCs. In addition, radiation resistance of progenitor cells in an immortalized breast cancer cell line was mediated by the Wnt/β catenin pathway proteins (Diehn M, et al, Nature, 9 Apr 2009;458(7239):780-3; Chen MS, et al, J Cell Sci, 1 Feb 2007;120(Pt 3):468-77).

As mentioned in the previous post on CSCs, CSC targeting therapy could either eliminate CSCs by either killing them after differentiating them from other tumor population, and/or by disrupting their niche. Efficient eradication of CSCs may require the combined ablation of CSCs themselves and their niches. Thus, identification of appropriate and specific markers of CSCs is crucial for targeting them and preventing tumor relapse. Table 1 (adapted from a review article on CSCs by Zhao et al) describes the currently used biomarkers for CSC-targeted therapy (Zhao L, et al, Eur Surg Res, 2012;49(1):8-15).

Table 1

Specific Target Cancer type Marker properties and therapy
Targeting cell markers
CD24+CD44+ESA+ Pancreatic cancer Pancreatic CSCs, elevated during tumorigenesis
CD44+CD24–ESA+ Breast cancer Breast CSCs
EpCAM high CD44+CD166+ Colorectal cancer
CD34+CD38– AML broad use as a target for chemotherapy
CD133+ Prostate cancer and breast cancer 5-transmembrane domain cell surface glycoprotein,also a marker for neuron epithelial, hematopoietic and endothelialprogenitor cells
Stro1+CD105+CD44+ Bone sarcoma
Nodal/activin Knockdown or pharmacological inhibition of its receptorAlk4/7 abrogated self-renewal capacity and in vivo tumorigenicity of CSCs.
Targeting signaling pathways
Hedgehog signaling Upregulated in several cancer types inhibitors: GDC-0449,PF04449913, BMS-833923, IPI-926 and TAK-441
Wnt/β-catenin signaling CML, squamous cell carcinoma Be required for CSC self-renewal and tumor growthinhibitors: PRI-724, WIF-1 and telomerase
Notch signaling Several cancer types An important regulator in normal development, adult stem cell maintenance,and tumorigenesis in multiple organs,inhibitors: RO4929097, BMS-906024, IPI-926 and MK0752
PI3K/Akt/PTEN/mTOR, Several cancer types The pathway is deregulated in many tumors and used to preferentially target CSCsinhibitors: temsirolimus, everolimus FDA-approved therapy for renal cell carcinoma
Targeting CSC Niche
Angiogenesis Niche Colon cancer, breast cancer, NSCLC Inhibitor: bevacizumab results in a disruption of the CSC niche, depleted vasculature and a dramatic reduction in the number of CSCs.
Hypoxia (HIF pathway) Ovarian cancer, lung cancer, cervical cancer Inhibitors: topotecan and digoxin have been approved for ovarian, lung and cervical cancer
Targeting Micro RNA
miR-200 family Inhibits EMT and cancer cell migration by direct targeting of E-cadherin transcriptional repressors ZEB1 and ZEB2
Let-7 family Regulates BT-IC stem cell-like properties by silencing more than one target
miR-124 Related to neuronal differentiation, targets laminin γ1 and integrin β1.
miR-21 Suppresses the self-renewal of embryonic stem cells

The challenge is to develop an effective treatment regimen that prevents survival, self-renewal and differentiation of CSCs and also disturbs their niche without damaging normal stem cells. In order to evaluate the efficiency of CSC-targeting therapies, in vitro models and mouse xenotransplantation models have been used for preclinical studies. Some potential CSC targeting agents in preclinical stages include notch inhibitors for glioblastoma stem cells and telomerase peptide vaccination after chemoradiotherapy of non-small cell lung cancer stem cells Stem Cells (Hovinga KE, et al, Jun 2010;28(6):1019-29; Serrano D, Mol Cancer, 9 Aug 2011;10:96). In addition, several phase II and phase III trials are currently underway to test CSC-targeting drugs focusing on efficacy and safety of treatment.


Bao S, Nature, 7 Dec 2006;444(7120):756-60).

Diehn M, et al, Nature, 9 Apr 2009;458(7239):780-3

Chen MS, et al, J Cell Sci, 1 Feb 2007;120(Pt 3):468-77

Zhao L, et al, Eur Surg Res, 2012;49(1):8-15

Hovinga KE, et al, Jun 2010;28(6):1019-29

Serrano D, Mol Cancer, 9 Aug 2011;10:96

Pharmaceutical Intelligence posts: Author and curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD Authors: Anamika Sarkar, PhD and Ritu Saxena, PhD Author: Ziv Raviv, PhD Reporter: Larry H Bernstein, MD Larry H Bernstein, MD Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Author and reporter: Tilda Barliya PhD Reporter and Curator: Stephen J. Williams, PhD Reporter: Ritu Saxena, PhD Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Reporter: Ritu Saxena, PhD Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


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Author and Curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD


What are cancer stem cells?

Cancer is a debilitating disease estimated to be responsible for about 7.6 million deaths in 2008 (Jemal A, et al, CA Cancer J Clin, Mar-Apr 2011;61(2):69-90). Thus, extensive research is underway to deal with the various types of cancer. The concept of cancer stem cells (CSC) has surfaced in in the past decade after identification and characterization of CSC-enriched populations in several different types of cancer (Lapidot T, et al, Nature, 17 Feb 1994;367(6464):645-8; Reya T, et al, Nature, 1 Nov 2001;414(6859):105-11;  Trumpp A and Wiestler OD, et al, Nat Clin Pract Oncol, Jun 2008;5(6):337-47). Although there has been lot of debate on the cell of origin of CSC, according to the classical concept CSC are defined by their functional properties.

Functional properties of CSC

  • CSCs are at the top of tumor hierarchy. Regenerative tissues follow a hierarchical organization with adult stem cells at the top maintaining tissues and normal adult cells during homeostasis and regeneration during cell loss from injury. Similarly, several tumors follow the hierarchy with CSC at the top. Hierarchical organization has been reported in several cancer types including but not limited to breast cancer, brain cancer, colon cancer, leukemia and pancreatic cancer (Lapidot T, et al, Nature, 17 Feb 1994;367(6464):645-8; Al-Hajj M, et al, PNAS USA, 1 Apr 200;100(7):3983-8; Singh SK, et al, Nature, 18 Nov 2004;432(7015):396-401; Dalerba P, et al, PNAS USA, 12 Jun 2007;104(24):10158-63; Hermann PC, et al, Cell Stem Cell, 13 Sep 2007;1(3):313-23).
  • CSCs possess unlimited self-renewal capacity similar to that of physiological stem cells and unlike other differentiated cell types within the tumor. Cancer stem cells can also generate non-CSC progeny that is comprised of differentiated cells and forms tumor bulk.
  • Some CSs exhibit quiescent or dormant stage. Although not observed in all CSC types, some CSCs have been found to shuttle between quiescent, slow-cycling, and active states. The CSCs in their dormant and slow-cycling stage are less likely to be affected by conventional anti-tumor therapies which generally target rapidly dividing cells. Dormant stage is exhibited even in adult stem cells and the dormant normal stem cells can regain cell division potential during tissue injury (Wilson A, et al, Cell,  12 Dec 2008;135(6):1118-29). Thus, it has been speculated that dormant CSC might be a reason for tumor relapse even after pathologic complete response is observed post therapy.
  • Some CSCs are resistant to conventional anti-cancer therapies. This leads to accumulation of CSC that might result in relapse after anti-cancer therapy. For instance, Li et al (2008) reported that CSC accumulated in the breast of women with locally advanced tumors after cytotoxic chemotherapy had eliminated the bulk of the tumor cells (Li X,et al, J Natl Cancer Inst, 7 May 2008;100(9):672-9). A similar observation was made by Oravecz-Wilson et al (2009) stating that despite remarkable responses to the tyrosine kinase inhibitor imatinib, CML patients show imatinib refractoriness because leukemia stem cells in CML are resistant tyrosine kinase (Oravecz-Wilson KI, et al, Cancer Cell, 4 Aug 2009;16(2):137-48).
  • The CSC niche. CSC functional traits might be sustained by this microenvironment, termed “niche”. The niche is the environment in which stem cells reside and is responsible for the maintenance of unique stem cell properties such as self-renewal and an undifferentiated state. The heterogeneous populations which constitute a niche include both stem cells and surrounding differentiated cells. The necessary intrinsic pathways that are utilized by this cancer stem cell population to maintain both self-renewal and the ability to differentiate are believed to be a result of the environment where cancer stem cells reside. (Cabarcas SM, et al, Int J Cancer, 15 Nov 2011;129(10):2315-27). For instance, properties of CSC in glioma in a mouse xenograft model were maintained by vascular endothelial cells (Calabrese C, et al, Cancer Cell, Jan 2007;11(1):69-82). Several molecules including interleukin 6 have been observed to play a role in tumor proliferation and hence, participate in maintaining tumorigenic and self-renewal potential of CSC. Moreover, the CSC niche might not only regulate CSCs traits but might also directly provide CSC features to non-CSC population.

What is the origin of CSC?

According to current thinking, CSC result from epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) when cells switch from a polarized epithelial to a non-polarized mesenchymal cell type with stem cell properties, including migratory behavior, self-renewal and generation of differentiated progeny, and reduced responsiveness to conventional cancer therapies (Scheel C and Weinberg RA, Semin Cancer Biol, Oct 2012;22(5-6):396-403; Crews LA and Jamieson CH, Cancer Lett, 17 Aug 2012). Evidence is accumulating that cancers of distinct subtypes within an organ may derive from different ‘cells of origin’. The tumor cell of origin is the cell type from which the disease is derived after it undergoes oncogenic mutation. It might take a series of mutations to achieve the CSC phenotype (Visvader JE, Nature, 20 Jan 2011;469(7330):314-22). Also, CSCs have been reported to originate from stem cells in some cases.

Biomarkers for CSC

CSC targeting therapy could either eliminate CSCs by either killing them after differentiating them from other tumor population, and/or by disrupting their niche. Efficient eradication of CSCs may require the combined ablation of CSCs themselves and their niches. Identifying appropriate biomarkers of CSC is a very important aim for CSCs to be useful as targets of anti-cancer therapies in order to possibly prevent relapse. Using cell surface markers, CSCs have been isolated and purified from cancers of breast, brain, thyroid, cervix, lung, blood (leukemia), skin (melanoma), organs of the gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts, and the retina. The challenge, however, is that CSCs share similar markers with normal cells which makes CSCs targeting difficult as it would harm normal cells in the process. More recently, advanced techniques such as signal sequence trap (SST) PCR screening methods have been developed to identify a leukemia-specific stem cell marker (CD96). After a small subset of human AML cells displayed tumorigenic properties, Leukemia Stem Cells (LSCs) were identified as leukemia cells with CD23+/CD38+ markers. These cells closely resemble hematopeotic stem cells (HSCs) (Bonnet D and Dick JR, Nat Med, Jul 1997;3(7):730-7). In solid tumors, a significant discovery was made when CSCs in breast cancer were identified within the ESA+/CD44+/CD24low-neg population of mammary pleural effusion and tumor samples (Al-Hajj M, et al, PNAS USA, 1 Apr 200;100(7):3983-8).

After these two landmark publications, CSCs were identified in many more solid and hematopoietic human tumors as well. In addition, within a tumor type, CSC-enriched populations display heterogeneity in markers. For example, only 1% of breast cancer cells simultaneously express both reported CSC phenotypes ESA+/CD44+/

CD24low-neg and ALDH-1+ (Ginestier C, et al, Cell Stem Cell, 1 Nov 2007;1(5):555-67). The discrepancy might be due to different techniques used to identify the markers and also a reflection of the molecular heterogeneity within the tumors. Recent advances in genome wide expression profiling studies have led to the identification of different subtypes in a particular type of cancer. Breast cancer was recently classified into different subtypes and this genetic heterogeneity is likely paralleled by a heterogeneous CSC complexity.


A lot of research is currently underway on various aspects of CSCs including biomarker identification, cell of origin, and clinical trials targeting CSC population in cancer. The concept of CSCs has evolved quite a bit since their discovery. Recently, identification of high genetic heterogeneity within a tumor has been in focus and subsequently it has been observed that several CSC clones can coexist and compete with each other within a tumor. Adding complexity to their identity is the fact that CSCs may have unstable phenotypes and genotypes. Taken together, the dynamics associated with CSCs makes it difficult to identify reliable and robust biomarkers and develop efficient targeted therapies. Thus, a major thrust of research should be to focus on the unfolding of the dynamic identity of CSCs in tumor types and at different that might lead to the identification and targeting of highly specific CSCs biomarkers.


Jemal A, et al, CA Cancer J Clin, Mar-Apr 2011;61(2):69-90

Reya T, et al, Nature, 1 Nov 2001;414(6859):105-11

Trumpp A and Wiestler OD, et al, Nat Clin Pract Oncol, Jun 2008;5(6):337-47

Lapidot T, et al, Nature, 17 Feb 1994;367(6464):645-8

Singh SK, et al, Nature, 18 Nov 2004;432(7015):396-401

Dalerba P, et al, PNAS USA, 12 Jun 2007;104(24):10158-63

Hermann PC, et al, Cell Stem Cell, 13 Sep 2007;1(3):313-23

Wilson A, et al, Cell,  12 Dec 2008;135(6):1118-29

Li X,et al, J Natl Cancer Inst, 7 May 2008;100(9):672-9

Oravecz-Wilson KI, et al, Cancer Cell, 4 Aug 2009;16(2):137-48

Cabarcas SM, et al, Int J Cancer, 15 Nov 2011;129(10):2315-27

Calabrese C, et al, Cancer Cell, Jan 2007;11(1):69-82

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Pharmaceutical Intelligence posts:

Authors: Anamika Sarkar, PhD and Ritu Saxena, PhD Author: Ziv Raviv, PhD Reporter: Larry H Bernstein, MD

Larry H Bernstein, MD Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Author and reporter: Tilda Barliya PhD Reporter and Curator: Stephen J. Williams, PhD Reporter: Ritu Saxena, PhD Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Reporter: Ritu Saxena, PhD Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

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