Phenotypic heterogeneity and instability of human ovarian tumor-initiating cells

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Apr 19;108(16):6468-73. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1005529108. Epub 2011 Mar 30.


The cancer stem cell (CSC) model proposes that tumors have a hierarchical organization in which only some cells indefinitely self-renew and thereby sustain tumor growth. In addition, the CSC model requires that tumor-initiating cells (TICs) be prospectively isolatable on the basis of their phenotype. Previous studies have suggested that serous ovarian cancer (SOC) conforms to the CSC model, but these used arguably nonfidelitous immortalized cell lines, cultured primary cells, or passaged xenografts as the source of tumor cells. We developed a robust assay for quantifying TICs from primary SOC. Using this assay, we find that TICs are rare when assayed in either NOD/SCID or NOD/SCID/IL2Rγ(-/-) (NSG) mice. TIC frequency (TICf) varies substantially between patients, although it is similar in primary ovarian masses and omental metastases, suggesting that TICf is an intrinsic property of ovarian tumors. CD133 marks all TICs from several primary SOC cases. However, in other cases, substantial TIC activity is found in both the CD133(+) and CD133(-) fractions, whereas still other cases have exclusively CD133(-) TICs. Furthermore, the TIC phenotype can change in xenografts: primary tumors in which all TICs are CD133(+) can give rise to xenografts that contain substantial numbers of CD133(-) TICs. Our results highlight the need for quantitative rigor in the evaluation of TICs and for caution when using passaged xenografts for such studies. Furthermore, although our data suggest that SOC conforms to the CSC hypothesis, the heterogeneity of the TIC phenotype may complicate its clinical application.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mice, SCID
  • Models, Biological*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / transplantation
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / genetics
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Transplantation, Heterologous