Background: Label-retaining cancer cells (LRCC) have been proposed as a model of slowly cycling cancer stem cells (CSC) which mediate resistance to chemotherapy, tumor recurrence, and metastasis. The molecular mechanisms of chemoresistance in LRCC remain to-date incompletely understood. This study aims to identify molecular targets in LRCC that can be exploited to overcome resistance to gemcitabine, a standard chemotherapy agent for the treatment of pancreas cancer. Methods: LRCC were isolated following Cy5-dUTP staining by flow cytometry from pancreatic cancer cell lines. Gene expression profiles obtained from LRCC, non-LRCC (NLRCC), and bulk tumor cells were used to generate differentially regulated pathway networks. Loss of upregulated targets in LRCC on gemcitabine sensitivity was assessed via RNAi experiments and pharmacological inhibition. Expression patterns of PDPK1, one of the upregulated targets in LRCC, was studied in patients' tumor samples and correlated with pathological variables and clinical outcome. Results: LRCC are significantly more resistant to gemcitabine than the bulk tumor cell population. Non-canonical EGF (epidermal growth factor)-mediated signal transduction emerged as the top upregulated network in LRCC compared to non-LRCC, and knock down of EGF signaling effectors PDPK1 (3-phosphoinositide dependent protein kinase-1), BMX (BMX non-receptor tyrosine kinase), and NTRK2 (neurotrophic receptor tyrosine kinase 2) or treatment with PDPK1 inhibitors increased growth inhibition and induction of apoptosis in response to gemcitabine. Knockdown of PDPK1 preferentially increased growth inhibition and reduced resistance to induction of apoptosis upon gemcitabine treatment in the LRCC vs non-LRCC population. These findings are accompanied by lower expression levels of PDPK1 in tumors compared to matched uninvolved pancreas in surgical resection specimens and a negative association of membranous localization on IHC with high nuclear grade (p<0.01). Conclusion: Pancreatic cancer cell-derived LRCC are relatively resistant to gemcitabine and harbor a unique transcriptomic profile compared to bulk tumor cells. PDPK1, one of the members of an upregulated EGF-signaling network in LRCC, mediates resistance to gemcitabine, is found to be dysregulated in pancreas cancer specimens, and might be an attractive molecular target for combination therapy studies.
- Cancer stem cell
- Label-retaining cancer cells (LRCC)
- Pancreatic cancer