Autophagy contributes to the survival of CD133+ liver cancer stem cells in the hypoxic and nutrient-deprived tumor microenvironment

Yu-Jiao Song, Shan-Shan Zhang, Xian-Ling Guo, Kai Sun, Zhi-Peng Han, Rong Li, Qiu-Dong Zhao, Wei-Jie Deng, Xu-Qin Xie, Jian-Wei Zhang, Meng-Chao Wu, Li-Xin Wei
Cancer Letters 2013 October 1, 339 (1): 70-81
Liver cancer stem cells (LCSCs) can drive and maintain hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) growth, metastasis, and recurrence. Therefore, they are potentially responsible for the poor prognosis of HCC. Oxygen and nutrient deficiencies are common characteristics of the tumor microenvironment. However, how LCSCs adapt to oxygen- and nutrient-deprived conditions is unclear. Here, we used immunofluorescent staining and flow cytometry analysis to show that CD133+ cells were significantly enriched after hypoxia and nutrient starvation (H/S) in the human HCC cell line Huh7. Sorted CD133+ cells showed higher survival, less apoptosis, and possess higher clonogenic ability under H/S compared to the CD133- population. Under H/S, electron microscopy revealed more advanced autophagic vesicles in CD133+ cells. Additionally, CD133+ cells had higher autophagy levels as measured by both RT-qPCR and Western blotting. CD133+ cells had more accumulated GFP-LC3 puncta, which can be detected by fluorescence microscopy. The autophagic inhibitor chloroquine (CQ) significantly increased apoptosis and decreased the clonogenic capacity of CD133+ cells under H/S. Pre-culturing in H/S enhanced the sphere-forming capacity of CD133+ cells. However, CQ significantly impaired this process. Therefore, autophagy is essential for LCSCs maintenance. CD133+ cells were also found to have a higher tumor-forming ability in vivo, which could be inhibited by CQ administration. Collectively, our results indicate that the involvement of autophagy in maintenance of CD133+ LCSCs under the oxygen- and nutrient-deprived conditions that are typical of the tumor microenvironment in HCC. Therefore, autophagy inhibitors may make LCSCs more sensitive to the tumor microenvironment and be useful in improving anti-cancer treatments.

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