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Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Jun;120(6):865-71. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1204987. Epub 2012 Apr 4.

Arsenic-transformed malignant prostate epithelia can convert noncontiguous normal stem cells into an oncogenic phenotype.

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National Toxicology Program Laboratory, Division of the National Toxicology Program, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA.



Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are likely critical to carcinogenesis, and, like normal stem cells (NSCs), are affected by microenvironmental factors. Malignant cells release extracellular factors, modifying tumor behavior. Inorganic arsenic, a human carcinogen, is associated with an overproduction of CSCs in various model systems of carcinogenesis.


We aimed to determine if NSCs are influenced by nearby arsenic-transformed malignant epithelial cells (MECs) as a possible factor in arsenic-associated CSC overabundance.


Transwell noncontact co-culture allowed the study of the effects of non-contiguous, arsenic-transformed prostate MECs on the isogenic human prostate NSC line, WPE-stem. Cancer phenotype was assessed by evaluating secreted matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), invasiveness, colony formation, and spheroid formation. Gene expression was assessed at the protein (Western blot) or mRNA (real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) levels.


Noncontact co-culture of MECs and NSCs rapidly (≤ 3 weeks) caused hypersecretion of MMPs and marked suppression of the tumor suppressor gene PTEN in NSCs. NSCs co-cultured with MECs also showed increased invasiveness and clonogenicity and formed more free-floating spheroids and highly branched ductal-like structures in Matrigel, all typical for CSCs. MEC co-culture caused dysregulated self-renewal and differentiation-related gene expression patterns and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in NSCs consistent with an acquired cancer phenotype. Interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cytokine involved in tumor microenvironment control, was hypersecreted by MECs, and IL-6 exposure of NSCs resulted in the duplication of several responses in NSCs of conversion to CSCs via MEC co-culture (e.g., MMP hypersecretion, decreased PTEN).


Arsenic-transformed MECs recruit nearby NSCs into a cancer phenotype, thereby potentially increasing CSC number. This may be a factor in arsenic-induced CSC overabundance seen in multiple model systems.

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