Survival of salivary gland cancer stem cells requires mTOR signaling

Cell Death Dis. 2021 Jan 21;12(1):108. doi: 10.1038/s41419-021-03391-7.


Advanced salivary gland mucoepidermoid carcinoma (MEC) is a relentless cancer that exhibits resistance to conventional chemotherapy. As such, treatment for patients with advanced MEC is tipically radical surgery and radiotherapy. Facial disfigurement and poor quality of life are frequent treatment challenges, and many patients succumb to loco-regional recurrence and/or metastasis. We know that cancer stem-like cells (CSC) drive MEC tumorigenesis. The current study tests the hypothesis that MEC CSC are sensitive to therapeutic inhibition of mTOR. Here, we report a correlation between the long-term clinical outcomes of 17 MEC patients and the intratumoral expression of p-mTOR (p = 0.00294) and p-S6K1 (p = 0.00357). In vitro, we observed that MEC CSC exhibit constitutive activation of the mTOR signaling pathway (i.e., mTOR, AKT, and S6K1), unveiling a potential strategy for targeted ablation of these cells. Using a panel of inhibitors of the mTOR pathway, i.e., rapamycin and temsirolimus (mTOR inhibitors), buparlisib and LY294002 (AKT inhibitors), and PF4708671 (S6K1 inhibitor), we observed consistently dose-dependent decrease in the fraction of CSC, as well as inhibition of secondary sphere formation and self-renewal in three human MEC cell lines (UM-HMC-1,-3A,-3B). Notably, therapeutic inhibition of mTOR with rapamycin or temsirolimus induced preferential apoptosis of CSC, when compared to bulk tumor cells. In contrast, conventional chemotherapeutic drugs (cisplatin, paclitaxel) induced preferential apoptosis of bulk tumor cells and accumulation of CSC. In vivo, therapeutic inhibition of mTOR with temsirolimus caused ablation of CSC and downregulation of Bmi-1 expression (major inducer of stem cell self-renewal) in MEC xenografts. Transplantation of MEC cells genetically silenced for mTOR into immunodeficient mice corroborated the results obtained with temsirolimus. Collectively, these data demonstrated that mTOR signaling is required for CSC survival, and unveiled the therapeutic potential of targeting the mTOR pathway for elimination of highly tumorigenic cancer stem-like cells in salivary gland mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology
  • Humans
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Salivary Gland Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Salivary Gland Neoplasms / pathology
  • Signal Transduction
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism*


  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases