CD133+ anaplastic thyroid cancer cells initiate tumors in immunodeficient mice and are regulated by thyrotropin

Susan Friedman, Min Lu, Atara Schultz, Dolly Thomas, Reigh-Yi Lin
PloS One 2009, 4 (4): e5395

BACKGROUND: Anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC) is one of the most lethal human malignancies. Its rapid onset and resistance to conventional therapeutics contribute to a mean survival of six months after diagnosis and make the identification of thyroid-cancer-initiating cells increasingly important.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: In prior studies of ATC cell lines, CD133(+) cells exhibited stem-cell-like features such as high proliferation, self-renewal and colony-forming ability in vitro. Here we show that transplantation of CD133(+) cells, but not CD133(-) cells, into immunodeficient NOD/SCID mice is sufficient to induce growth of tumors in vivo. We also describe how the proportion of ATC cells that are CD133(+) increases dramatically over three months of culture, from 7% to more than 80% of the total. This CD133(+) cell pool can be further separated by flow cytometry into two distinct populations: CD133(+/high) and CD133(+/low). Although both subsets are capable of long-term tumorigenesis, the rapidly proliferating CD133(+/high) cells are by far the most efficient. They also express high levels of the stem cell antigen Oct4 and the receptor for thyroid stimulating hormone, TSHR. Treating ATC cells with TSH causes a three-fold increase in the numbers of CD133(+) cells and elicits a dose-dependent up-regulation of the expression of TSHR and Oct4 in these cells. More importantly, immunohistochemical analysis of tissue specimens from ATC patients indicates that CD133 is highly expressed on tumor cells but not on neighboring normal thyroid cells.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: To our knowledge, this is the first report indicating that CD133(+) ATC cells are solely responsible for tumor growth in immunodeficient mice. Our data also give a unique insight into the regulation of CD133 by TSH. These highly tumorigenic CD133(+) cells and the activated TSH signaling pathway may be useful targets for future ATC therapies.

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