Background: Cancer stem cells are thought to be responsible for the initiation and progression of cancers. In non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs), Hoechst 33342 dye effluxing side population (SP) cells are shown to have stem cell like properties. The oncogenic capacity of cancer stem-like cells is in part due to their ability to self-renew; however the mechanistic correlation between oncogenic pathways and self-renewal of cancer stem-like cells has remained elusive. Here we characterized the SP cells at the molecular level and evaluated its ability to generate tumors at the orthotopic site in the lung microenvironment. Further, we investigated if the self-renewal of SP cells is dependent on EGFR mediated signaling.
Results: SP cells were detected and isolated from multiple NSCLC cell lines (H1650, H1975, A549), as well as primary human tumor explants grown in nude mice. SP cells demonstrated stem-like properties including ability to self-renew and grow as spheres; they were able to generate primary and metastatic tumors upon orthotopic implantation into the lung of SCID mice. In vitro study revealed elevated expression of stem cell associated markers like Oct4, Sox2 and Nanog as well as demonstrated intrinsic epithelial to mesenchymal transition features in SP cells. Further, we show that abrogation of EGFR, Src and Akt signaling through pharmacological or genetic inhibitors suppresses the self-renewal growth and expansion of SP-cells and resulted in specific downregulation of Sox2 protein expression. siRNA mediated depletion of Sox2 significantly blocked the SP phenotype as well as its self-renewal capacity; whereas other transcription factors like Oct4 and Nanog played a relatively lesser role in regulating self-renewal. Interestingly, Sox2 was elevated in metastatic foci of human NSCLC samples.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that Sox2 is a novel target of EGFR-Src-Akt signaling in NSCLCs that modulates self-renewal and expansion of stem-like cells from NSCLC. Therefore, the outcome of the EGFR-Src-Akt targeted therapy may rely upon the expression and function of Sox2 within the NSCLC-CSCs.