Identification, expansion and characterization of cancer cells with stem cell properties from head and neck squamous cell carcinomas

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Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is a major public health concern. Recent data indicate the presence of cancer stem cells (CSC) in many solid tumors, including HNSCC. Here, we assessed the stem cell (SC) characteristics, including cell surface markers, radioresistance, chromosomal instability, and in vivo tumorigenic capacity of CSC isolated from HNSCC patient specimens. We show that spheroid enrichment of CSC from early and short-term HNSCC cell cultures was associated with increased expression of CD44, CD133, SOX2 and BMI1 compared with normal oral epithelial cells. On immunophenotyping, five of 12 SC/CSC markers were homogenously expressed in all tumor cultures, while one of 12 was negative, four of 12 showed variable expression, and two of the 12 were expressed heterogeneously. We showed that irradiated CSCs survived and retained their self-renewal capacity across different ionizing radiation (IR) regimens. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) analyses of parental and clonally-derived tumor cells revealed different chromosome copy numbers from cell to cell, suggesting the presence of chromosomal instability in HNSCC CSC. Further, our in vitro and in vivo mouse engraftment studies suggest that CD44+/CD66− is a promising, consistent biomarker combination for HNSCC CSC. Overall, our findings add further evidence to the proposed role of HNSCC CSCs in therapeutic resistance.

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