Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Sphere-forming cell subpopulations with cancer stem cell properties in human hepatoma cell lines

Lu Cao1, Yanming Zhou2, Beibei Zhai1, Jian Liao1, Wen Xu1, Ruixiu Zhang1, Jing Li1, Yu Zhang1, Lei Chen1, Haihua Qian1, Mengchao Wu1 and Zhengfeng Yin1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Molecular Oncology, Eastern Hepatobiliary Surgery Hospital, Second Military Medical University, Shanghai, China

2 Department of Hepato-Biliary-Pancreato-Vascular Surgery, the First affiliated Hospital of Xiamen University, Xiamen, China

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BMC Gastroenterology 2011, 11:71  doi:10.1186/1471-230X-11-71

Published: 14 June 2011



Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are regarded as the cause of tumor formation and recurrence. The isolation and identification of CSCs could help to develop novel therapeutic strategies specifically targeting CSCs.


Human hepatoma cell lines were plated in stem cell conditioned culture system allowed for sphere forming. To evaluate the stemness characteristics of spheres, the self-renewal, proliferation, chemoresistance, tumorigenicity of the PLC/PRF/5 sphere-forming cells, and the expression levels of stem cell related proteins in the PLC/PRF/5 sphere-forming cells were assessed, comparing with the parental cells. The stem cell RT-PCR array was performed to further explore the biological properties of liver CSCs.


The PLC/PRF/5, MHCC97H and HepG2 cells could form clonal nonadherent 3-D spheres and be serially passaged. The PLC/PRF/5 sphere-forming cells possessed a key criteria that define CSCs: persistent self-renewal, extensive proliferation, drug resistance, overexpression of liver CSCs related proteins (Oct3/4, OV6, EpCAM, CD133 and CD44). Even 500 sphere-forming cells were able to form tumors in NOD/SCID mice, and the tumor initiating capability was not decreased when spheres were passaged. Besides, downstream proteins DTX1 and Ep300 of the CSL (

BF1 in humans,
uppressor of hairless in Drosophila and
AG1 in C. elegans) -independent Notch signaling pathway were highly expressed in the spheres, and a gamma-secretase inhibitor MRK003 could significantly inhibit the sphere formation ability.


Nonadherent tumor spheres from hepatoma cell lines cultured in stem cell conditioned medium possess liver CSC properties, and the CSL-independent Notch signaling pathway may play a role in liver CSCs.