Hedgehog-GLI signaling drives self-renewal and tumorigenicity of human melanoma-initiating cells

Roberta Santini, Maria C Vinci, Silvia Pandolfi, Junia Y Penachioni, Valentina Montagnani, Biagio Olivito, Riccardo Gattai, Nicola Pimpinelli, Gianni Gerlini, Lorenzo Borgognoni, Barbara Stecca
Stem Cells 2012, 30 (9): 1808-18
The question of whether cancer stem/tumor-initiating cells (CSC/TIC) exist in human melanomas has arisen in the last few years. Here, we have used nonadherent spheres and the aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) enzymatic activity to enrich for CSC/TIC in a collection of human melanomas obtained from a broad spectrum of sites and stages. We find that melanomaspheres display extensive in vitro self-renewal ability and sustain tumor growth in vivo, generating human melanoma xenografts that recapitulate the phenotypic composition of the parental tumor. Melanomaspheres express high levels of Hedgehog (HH) pathway components and of embryonic pluripotent stem cell factors SOX2, NANOG, OCT4, and KLF4. We show that human melanomas contain a subset of cells expressing high ALDH activity (ALDH(high)), which is endowed with higher self-renewal and tumorigenic abilities than the ALDH(low) population. A good correlation between the number of ALDH(high) cells and sphere formation efficiency was observed. Notably, both pharmacological inhibition of HH signaling by the SMOOTHENED (SMO) antagonist cyclopamine and GLI antagonist GANT61 and stable expression of shRNA targeting either SMO or GLI1 result in a significant decrease in melanoma stem cell self-renewal in vitro and a reduction in the number of ALDH(high) melanoma stem cells. Finally, we show that interference with the HH-GLI pathway through lentiviral-mediated silencing of SMO and GLI1 drastically diminishes tumor initiation of ALDH(high) melanoma stem cells. In conclusion, our data indicate an essential role of the HH-GLI1 signaling in controlling self-renewal and tumor initiation of melanoma CSC/TIC. Targeting HH-GLI1 is thus predicted to reduce the melanoma stem cell compartment.

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