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PLoS One. 2011 Mar 4;6(3):e17687. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017687.

Sonic hedgehog pathway is essential for maintenance of cancer stem-like cells in human gastric cancer.

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  • 1Department of General Surgery, General Hospital of Chinese PLA, Beijing, China.


Abnormal activation of the Sonic hedgehog (SHH) pathway has been described in a wide variety of human cancers and in cancer stem cells (CSCs), however, the role of SHH pathway in gastric CSCs has not been reported. In this study, we investigated the possibility that abnormal activation of the SHH pathway maintained the characteristics of gastric CSCs. First, we identified cancer stem-like cells (CSLCs) from human gastric cancer cell lines (HGC-27, MGC-803 and MKN-45) using tumorsphere culture. Compared with adherent cells, the floating tumorsphere cells had more self-renewing capacity and chemoresistance. The cells expressing CSCs markers (CD44, CD24 and CD133) were also significantly more in tumorsphere cells than in adherent cells. More importantly, in vivo xenograft studies showed that tumors could be generated with 2 x 10⁴ tumorsphere cells, which was 100-fold less than those required for tumors seeding by adherent cells. Next, RT-PCR and Western blot showed that the expression levels of Ptch and Gli1 (SHH pathway target genes) were significantly higher in tumorsphere cells than in adherent cells. The results of quantitative real-time PCR were similar to those of RT-PCR and Western blot. Further analysis revealed that SHH pathway blocked by cyclopamine or 5E1 caused a higher reduction in self-renewing capacity of HGC-27 tumorsphere cells than that of adherent cells. We also found that SHH pathway blocking strongly enhanced the efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs in HGC-27 tumorsphere cells in vitro and in vivo but had no significant effect in adherent cells. Finally, we isolated the tumorspheres from gastric cancer specimen, these cells also had chemoresistance and tumorigenic capacity, and SHH pathway maintained the gastric CSLCs characteristics of tumorsphere cells from primary tumor samples. In conclusion, our data suggested that SHH pathway was essential for maintenance of CSLCs in human gastric cancer.

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