In vitro Evaluation of Sialyl Lewis X Relationship with Head and Neck Cancer Stem Cells

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To evaluate in vitro the potential links between sialyl Lewis X (sLeX) and cancer stem cells (CSC) in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). HNSCC is an aggressive malignancy with high mortality mainly due to metastasis. CSC have emerged as important players in HNSCC metastasis. sLeX is a tetrasaccharide carbohydrate known to play a key role in metastatic dissemination by promoting binding of the tumor cells to the endothelium.

Study Design

Experimental, in vitro.


Laboratory of Head and Neck Cancer Metastasis, University of Michigan.

Subjects and Methods

A panel of stage- and anatomic-site specific primary and metastatic HNSCC cell lines was assessed by flow cytometry to quantify sLeX relative expression levels. Serum-free conditioned media from the same HNSCC lines was collected over a time course of 72 hours and assessed by Western blot for secreted sLeX expression. Representative HNSCC cell lines were cultured as floating orospheres (condition that enhance CSC growth) or under normal adherent conditions and characterized by flow cytometry for CSC markers (CD44, aldehyde dehydrogenase [ALDH]) comparatively with sLeX expression.


sLeX is predominantly expressed in carcinomas originating from the oral cavity. Secreted sLeX is also found to be high in oral carcinomas and increased over the analyzed time course. Floating orospheres were strongly positive for CD44 and ALDH, confirming CSC enrichment of the orospheres. Tumor cells grown as orospheres are 95% to 100% positive for sLeX compared to 10% to 40% of adherent counterpart.


These studies provide the first evidence of sLeX relationship with CSC in HNSCC.

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