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PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37159. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037159. Epub 2012 May 14.

Gene expression profiling of liver cancer stem cells by RNA-sequencing.

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Department of Surgery, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong, China.



Accumulating evidence supports that tumor growth and cancer relapse are driven by cancer stem cells. Our previous work has demonstrated the existence of CD90(+) liver cancer stem cells (CSCs) in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Nevertheless, the characteristics of these cells are still poorly understood. In this study, we employed a more sensitive RNA-sequencing (RNA-Seq) to compare the gene expression profiling of CD90(+) cells sorted from tumor (CD90(+)CSCs) with parallel non-tumorous liver tissues (CD90(+)NTSCs) and elucidate the roles of putative target genes in hepatocarcinogenesis.


CD90(+) cells were sorted respectively from tumor and adjacent non-tumorous human liver tissues using fluorescence-activated cell sorting. The amplified RNAs of CD90(+) cells from 3 HCC patients were subjected to RNA-Seq analysis. A differential gene expression profile was established between CD90(+)CSCs and CD90(+)NTSCs, and validated by quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR) on the same set of amplified RNAs, and further confirmed in an independent cohort of 12 HCC patients. Five hundred genes were differentially expressed (119 up-regulated and 381 down-regulated genes) between CD90(+)CSCs and CD90(+)NTSCs. Gene ontology analysis indicated that the over-expressed genes in CD90(+)CSCs were associated with inflammation, drug resistance and lipid metabolism. Among the differentially expressed genes, glypican-3 (GPC3), a member of glypican family, was markedly elevated in CD90(+)CSCs compared to CD90(+)NTSCs. Immunohistochemistry demonstrated that GPC3 was highly expressed in forty-two human liver tumor tissues but absent in adjacent non-tumorous liver tissues. Flow cytometry indicated that GPC3 was highly expressed in liver CD90(+)CSCs and mature cancer cells in liver cancer cell lines and human liver tumor tissues. Furthermore, GPC3 expression was positively correlated with the number of CD90(+)CSCs in liver tumor tissues.


The identified genes, such as GPC3 that are distinctly expressed in liver CD90(+)CSCs, may be promising gene candidates for HCC therapy without inducing damages to normal liver stem cells.

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