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Mol Vis. 2005 Sep 12;11:729-37.

Cancer stem cell characteristics in retinoblastoma.

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  • 1Ross Eye Institute, Department of Ophthalmology, University of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14214, USA.



There is increasing evidence that cancer stem cells contribute to tumor progression and chemoresistance in a variety of malignancies, including brain tumors, leukemias, and breast carcinomas. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that retinoblastomas contain subpopulations of cells that exhibit cancer stem cell properties.


The following sources of retinoblastoma cells and tissues were examined for the presence of stem cell markers by immunocytochemistry: retinoblastoma tumors from mice transgenic for the SV40 T-antigen (driven by the beta-luteinizing hormone promoter), cell pellets of human Y79 and WERI-Rb27 retinoblastoma cell lines, and archival human retinoblastoma pathological specimens. Hoechst dye exclusion, mediated by the stem cell surface marker ABCG2 (ATP-binding cassette transporter, G2 subfamily), was assessed by flow cytometry in mouse tumors and WERI-Rb27 cells.


Small numbers of retinoblastoma cells (less than 1%) exhibited immunoreactivity to stem cell markers ABCG2, aldehyde dehydrogenase 1 (ALDH1), MCM2 (minichromosome maintenance marker 2), SCA-1 (Stem cell antigen-1), and p63. Hoechst dye uptake in mouse tumors and WERI-Rb27 cells was enhanced by addition of 50 microM Verapamil, consistent with activity of the calcium-sensitive ABCG2 protein. Flow cytometric analysis confirmed the presence of small subpopulations of cells excluding Hoechst dye in mouse retinoblastoma tumors (0.3%) and WERI-Rb27 cells (0.1%) in a verapamil-sensitive manner. ABCG2 and ALDH1 positive cells were Hoechst-dim, as seen by dual labeling in vitro.


Mouse and human retinoblastoma tumor cells contain a small subpopulation of cells that exhibit a cancer stem cell-like phenotype. Especially significant is the expression of ABCG2 in mouse and human tumor cells, a calcium-sensitive cell surface protein that not only acts to exclude Hoechst dye, but also confers resistance to over 20 different chemotherapeutic agents. These findings point to a heterogeneity in retinoblastoma tumors that may have significant impact on future treatment strategies.

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