Background: Multiple studies in recent years have identified highly tumorigenic populations of cells that drive tumor formation. These cancer stem cells (CSCs), or tumor-initiating cells (TICs), exhibit properties of normal stem cells and are associated with resistance to current therapies. As pancreatic adenocarcinoma is among the most resistant human cancers to chemo-radiation therapy, we sought to evaluate the presence of cell populations with tumor-initiating capacities in human pancreatic tumors. Understanding which pancreatic cancer cell populations possess tumor-initiating capabilities is critical to characterizing and understanding the biology of pancreatic CSCs towards therapeutic ends.
Methodology/principal findings: We have isolated populations of cells with high ALDH activity (ALDH(high)) and/or CD133 cell surface expression from human xenograft tumors established from multiple patient tumors with pancreatic adenocarcinoma (direct xenograft tumors) and from the pancreatic cancer cell line L3.6pl. Through fluorescent activated cell sorting (FACs)-mediated enrichment and depletion of selected pancreatic cancer cell populations, we sought to discriminate the relative tumorigenicity of cell populations that express the pancreatic CSC markers CD133 and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). ALDH(high) and ALDH(low) cell populations were further examined for co-expression of CD44 and/or CD24. We demonstrate that unlike cell populations demonstrating low ALDH activity, as few as 100 cells enriched for high ALDH activity were capable of tumor formation, irrespective of CD133 expression. In direct xenograft tumors, the proportions of total tumor cells expressing ALDH and/or CD133 in xenograft tumors were unchanged through a minimum of two passages. We further demonstrate that ALDH expression among patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma is heterogeneous, but the expression is constant in serial generations of individual direct xenograft tumors established from bulk human pancreatic tumors in NOD/SCID mice.
Conclusions/significance: We conclude that, in contrast to some previous studies, cell populations enriched for high ALDH activity alone are sufficient for efficient tumor-initiation with enhanced tumorigenic potential relative to CD133(+) and ALDH(low) cell populations in some direct xenograft tumors. Although cell populations enriched for CD133 expression may alone possess tumorigenic potential, they are significantly less tumorigenic than ALDH(high) cell populations. ALDH(high)/CD44(+)/CD24(+) or ALDH(low)/CD44(+)/CD24(+) phenotypes do not appear to significantly contribute to tumor formation at low numbers of inoculated tumor cells. ALDH expression broadly varies among patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma and the apparent expression is recapitulated in serial generations of direct xenograft tumors in NOD/SCID. We have thus identified a distinct population of TICs that should lead to identification of novel targets for pancreatic cancer therapy.