Direct cell-to-cell transfer in stressed tumor microenvironment aggravates tumorigenic or metastatic potential in pancreatic cancer

NPJ Genom Med. 2022 Oct 27;7(1):63. doi: 10.1038/s41525-022-00333-w.


Pancreatic cancer exhibits a characteristic tumor microenvironment (TME) due to enhanced fibrosis and hypoxia and is particularly resistant to conventional chemotherapy. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying TME-associated treatment resistance in pancreatic cancer are not fully understood. Here, we developed an in vitro TME mimic system comprising pancreatic cancer cells, fibroblasts and immune cells, and a stress condition, including hypoxia and gemcitabine. Cells with high viability under stress showed evidence of increased direct cell-to-cell transfer of biomolecules. The resulting derivative cells (CD44high/SLC16A1high) were similar to cancer stem cell-like-cells (CSCs) with enhanced anchorage-independent growth or invasiveness and acquired metabolic reprogramming. Furthermore, CD24 was a determinant for transition between the tumorsphere formation or invasive properties. Pancreatic cancer patients with CD44low/SLC16A1low expression exhibited better prognoses compared to other groups. Our results suggest that crosstalk via direct cell-to-cell transfer of cellular components foster chemotherapy-induced tumor evolution and that targeting of CD44 and MCT1(encoded by SLC16A1) may be useful strategy to prevent recurrence of gemcitabine-exposed pancreatic cancers.