Linking unfolded protein response to ovarian cancer cell fusion

BMC Cancer. 2022 Jun 7;22(1):622. doi: 10.1186/s12885-022-09648-4.


Background: Polyploid giant cancer cells (PGCCs) have been observed in epithelial ovarian tumors. They can resist antimitotic drugs, thus participating in tumor maintenance and recurrence. Although their origin remains unclear, PGCC formation seems to be enhanced by conditions that trigger the unfolded protein response (UPR) such as hypoxia or chemotherapeutic drugs like paclitaxel. Hypoxia has been shown to promote the formation of ovarian PGCCs by cell fusion. We thus hypothesized that the UPR could be involved in EOC cell fusion, possibly explaining the occurrence of PGCCs and the aggressiveness of EOC.

Methods: The UPR was induced in two ovarian cancer cell lines (SKOV3 and COV318). The UPR activation was assessed by Western blot and polyploidy indexes were calculated. Then, to confirm the implication of cell fusion in PGCC formation, two populations of SKOV3 cells were transfected with plasmids encoding for two distinct nuclear fluorescent proteins (GFP and mCherry) associated with different antibiotic resistance genes, and the two cell populations were mixed in co-culture. The co-culture was submitted to a double-antibiotic selection. The resulting cell population was characterized for its morphology, cyclicity, and proliferative and tumorigenic capacities, in addition to transcriptomic characterization.

Results: We demonstrated that cell fusion could be involved in the generation of ovarian PGCCs and this process was promoted by paclitaxel and the UPR activation. Double-antibiotic treatment of PGCCs led to the selection of a pure population of cells containing both GFP- and mCherry-positive nuclei. Interestingly, after 3 weeks of selection, we observed that these cells were no longer polynucleated but displayed a single nucleus positive for both fluorescent proteins, suggesting that genetic material mixing had occurred. These cells had reinitiated their normal cell cycles, acquired an increased invasive capacity, and could form ovarian tumors in ovo.

Conclusions: The UPR activation increased the in vitro formation of PGCCs by cell fusion, with the newly generated cells further acquiring new properties. The UPR modulation in ovarian cancer patients could represent an interesting therapeutic strategy to avoid the formation of PGCCs and therefore limit cancer relapse and drug resistance.

Keywords: Cell fusion; Invasion; Ovarian cancer; Polyploid giant cancer cell; Unfolded protein response.

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Ovarian Epithelial
  • Cell Fusion
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Ovarian Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Ovarian Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Paclitaxel / pharmacology
  • Paclitaxel / therapeutic use
  • Polyploidy
  • Unfolded Protein Response


  • Paclitaxel