Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a mortal disease due to treatment resistance, recurrence and distant metastasis. Emerging evidence has revealed that a small sub-population of cancer cells termed cancer stem cells (CSCs)/ cancer-initiating cells (CICs) is endowed with high levels of tumor-initiating ability, self-renewal ability and differentiation ability and is responsible for treatment resistance, recurrence and distant metastasis. Eradication of CSCs/CICs is essential to improve current treatments. However, the molecular mechanisms by which CSCs/CICs are maintained are still elusive. In this study, we aimed to determine the molecular mechanisms by which colorectal (CR)-CSCs/CICs in are maintained human primary CRC cells. CR-CSCs/CICs were isolated by sphere-culture and the ALDEFLUOR assay, and transcriptome analysis revealed that the gene ST6 N-Acetylgalactosaminide Alpha-2,6-Sialyltransferase 1 (ST6GALNAC1) was expressed at high levels in CR-CSCs/CICs. Overexpression of ST6GALNAC1 enhanced the expression of sialyl-Tn (STn) antigen, which is carried by the CSC marker CD44, and increased the sphere-forming ability and resistance to a chemotherapeutic reagent. The opposite phenomena were observed by gene knockdown using siRNA. Furthermore, the Akt pathway was activated in ST6GANAC1-overexpressed cells, and activation of the pathway was cancelled by gene knockdown of galectin-3. The results indicate that ST6GALNAC1 has a role in the maintenance of CR-CSCs/CICs by activating the Akt pathway in cooperation with galectin-3 and that ST6GalNAC1 (or STn antigen) might be a reasonable molecule for CSC/CIC-targeting therapy.
Keywords: Akt pathway; ST6GALNAC1; STn antigen; cancer stem cell; colorectal cancer.