Senescence-associated reprogramming promotes cancer stemness
Cellular senescence is a stress-responsive cell-cycle arrest program that terminates the further expansion of (pre-)malignant cells1,2. Key signalling components of the senescence machinery, such as p16INK4a, p21CIP1 and p53, as well as trimethylation of lysine 9 at histone H3 (H3K9me3), also operate as critical regulators of stem-cell functions (which are collectively termed ‘stemness’)3. In cancer cells, a gain of stemness may have profound implications for tumour aggressiveness and clinical outcome. Here we investigated whether chemotherapy-induced senescence could change stem-cell-related properties of malignant cells. Gene expression and functional analyses comparing senescent and non-senescent B-cell lymphomas from Eμ-Myctransgenic mice revealed substantial upregulation of an adult tissue stem-cell signature, activated Wnt signalling, and distinct stem-cell markers in senescence. Using genetically switchable models of senescence targeting H3K9me3 or p53 to mimic spontaneous escape from the arrested condition, we found that cells released from senescence re-entered the cell cycle with strongly enhanced and Wnt-dependent clonogenic growth potential compared to virtually identical populations that had been equally exposed to chemotherapy but had never been senescent.In vivo, these previously senescent cells presented with a much higher tumour initiation potential. Notably, the temporary enforcement of senescence in p53-regulatable models of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and acute myeloid leukaemia was found to reprogram non-stem bulk leukaemia cells into self-renewing, leukaemia-initiating stem cells. Our data, which are further supported by consistent results in human cancer cell lines and primary samples of human haematological malignancies, reveal that senescence-associated stemness is an unexpected, cell-autonomous feature that exerts its detrimental, highly aggressive growth potential upon escape from cell-cycle blockade, and is enriched in relapse tumours. These findings have profound implications for cancer therapy, and provide new mechanistic insights into the plasticity of cancer cells.