Differentiation therapy is a novel approach to eradicate cancer stem cells (CSCs), including head and neck squamous carcinoma CSC (HNSC CSC). All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) is a potent differentiating agent. We studied the anti-tumour effect of ATRA on HNSC CSC. HNSC CSCs were differentiated by ATRA in a serum-free conditioned medium. The effect of differentiation on tumour growth was assessed in vitro and in vivo, and chemosensitisation was examined using a colorimetric viability assay. In addition, the involvement of Wnt/β-catenin signalling as an underlying mechanism of the anti-tumour effect of retinoic acid (RA) on HNSC CSCs was assessed. ATRA suppressed the expression of the stem cell markers Oct4, Sox2, Nestin and CD44 in HNSC CSCs and inhibited the proliferation of HNSC CSCs in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, ATRA treatment augmented the chemosensitising effects of cisplatin. The anti-tumour effects of ATRA may be associated with down-regulation of Wnt/β-catenin signalling. In conclusion, ATRA may be potentially valuable in treatment of HNSC CSC, especially in combination with cisplatin.
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