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PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59895. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059895. Epub 2013 Mar 22.

Embryonic carcinoma cells show specific dielectric resistance profiles during induced differentiation.

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  • 1Division of Epigenetics, DKFZ-ZMBH Alliance, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany.


Induction of differentiation in cancer stem cells by drug treatment represents an important approach for cancer therapy. The understanding of the mechanisms that regulate such a forced exit from malignant pluripotency is fundamental to enhance our knowledge of tumour stability. Certain nucleoside analogues, such as 2'-deoxy-5-azacytidine and 1β-arabinofuranosylcytosine, can induce the differentiation of the embryonic cancer stem cell line NTERA 2 D1 (NT2). Such induced differentiation is associated with drug-dependent DNA-damage, cellular stress and the proteolytic depletion of stem cell factors. In order to further elucidate the mode of action of these nucleoside drugs, we monitored differentiation-specific changes of the dielectric properties of growing NT2 cultures using electric cell-substrate impedance sensing (ECIS). We measured resistance values of untreated and retinoic acid treated NT2 cells in real-time and compared their impedance profiles to those of cell populations triggered to differentiate with several established substances, including nucleoside drugs. Here we show that treatment with retinoic acid and differentiation-inducing drugs can trigger specific, concentration-dependent changes in dielectric resistance of NT2 cultures, which can be observed as early as 24 hours after treatment. Further, low concentrations of nucleoside drugs induce differentiation-dependent impedance values comparable to those obtained after retinoic acid treatment, whereas higher concentrations induce proliferation defects. Finally, we show that impedance profiles of substance-induced NT2 cells and those triggered to differentiate by depletion of the stem cell factor OCT4 are very similar, suggesting that reduction of OCT4 levels has a dominant function for differentiation induced by nucleoside drugs and retinoic acid. The data presented show that NT2 cells have specific dielectric properties, which allow the early identification of differentiating cultures and real-time label-free monitoring of differentiation processes. This work might provide a basis for further analyses of drug candidates for differentiation therapy of cancers.

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