Due to its aggressiveness and unusual resistance to conventional therapies, pancreatic cancer is a highly lethal gastrointestinal malignancy with poor prognosis. According to the cancer stem cell hypothesis, there exists a fraction of cancer cells, that is, cancer stem cells, responsible for tumor maintenance and therapeutic failure. Herein we investigated the involvement of proto-oncogene Pim-3 in driving the stemness properties in pancreatic cancer. Expression levels of several stemness-associated markers were examined in several pancreatic cancer cell lines. The double positive (CD24+ESA+) and double negative (CD24-ESA-) pancreatic cancer cells were isolated from PANC-1 and L3.6pl, and their self-renewal ability, tumorigenicity as well as sensitivity to gemcitabine were then evaluated. Results showed that there existed heterogeneity in expression levels of stemness-associated surface markers among pancreatic cancer cell lines. CD24+ESA+ pancreatic cancer cells exhibited increased tumorigenicity and decreased chemosensitivity to gemcitabine as compared to CD24-ESA- cells. Besides, the double positive (CD24+ESA+) subpopulation also exhibited greater expression level of Pim-3 when compared with the double negative (CD24-ESA-) ones. Furthermore, silencing of Pim-3 in pancreatic cancer cells leads to decreased proportions of both single positive (CD24+ and ESA+) and double positive (CD24+ESA+) pancreatic cancer cells. Overexpression of Pim-3 was associated with increased levels of some stemness-associated transcription factors (STAT3, etc.). Moreover, the phosphorylation level and transcriptional activity of STAT3 were decreased in Pim-3 silenced pancreatic cancer cells and restoration of its activity results in restitution of stem cell-like phenotypes. Therefore, Pim-3 maintains stemness of pancreatic cancer cells via activating STAT3 signaling pathway and might be used as a novel therapeutic target in pancreatic cancer.
Keywords: Pim-3; STAT3; chemoresistance; pancreatic cancer.; stemness.