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Toxicol Sci. 2012 Jan;125(1):20-9. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfr282. Epub 2011 Oct 19.

Overabundance of putative cancer stem cells in human skin keratinocyte cells malignantly transformed by arsenic.

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National Toxicology Program Laboratory, Inorganic Toxicology Group, Division of the National Toxicology Program, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709, USA.


Arsenic is a human skin carcinogen. Cancer is probably a disease driven by stem cells (SCs), and SCs are likely a key target during arsenic oncogenesis. In utero arsenic exposure predisposes mice to skin cancers that overproduce cancer SCs (CSCs) and have distorted CSC signaling and population dynamics. Therefore, we hypothesized CSC accumulation may occur during arsenic-induced malignant transformation in vitro of human skin keratinocytes. Thus, the HaCaT cell line, malignantly transformed by arsenite (100 nM, 30 weeks; termed As-TM cells) in prior work, was further studied for the quantity and nature of SCs after this transformation. SCs were isolated from passage-matched control and As-TM cells by a magnetic bead system that enriches for CD34-positive cells. There were 2.5 times more SCs isolated from As-TM cells than control. Holoclone production from As-TM putative CSCs was 2.5-fold higher by 1 week and 3.5-fold higher by 2 weeks than control SCs. Potential malignant phenotype was assessed in isolated SC/CSCs. Transcript level of SC/CSC markers were elevated in both isolated As-TM CSCs and control SCs compared with parental cells, but compared with control SCs, As-TM putative CSCs had elevated CD34, K5, K14, K15, and K19 transcripts and dramatically stronger staining for p63, Rac1, K5, Notch1, and K19. As-TM putative CSCs also showed markedly elevated MMP-9 secretion and colony formation, indicators of cancer phenotype, even compared with total population of As-TM cells. Thus, malignant phenotype is particularly pronounced in CSCs after arsenic-induced transformation of human skin cells and occurs concurrently with a potential overproduction of these cells.

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