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Human pancreatic adenocarcinoma contains a side population resistant to gemcitabine

Anke Van den broeck12, Lies Gremeaux2, Baki Topal1* and Hugo Vankelecom2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Abdominal Surgery, University Hospitals Leuven, Herestraat 49, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium

2 Laboratory of Tissue Plasticity, Research Unit of Embryo and Stem Cells, Department of Development & Regeneration, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium

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BMC Cancer 2012, 12:354  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-12-354

Published: 15 August 2012



Therapy resistance remains one of the major challenges to improve the prognosis of patients with pancreatic cancer. Chemoresistant cells, which potentially also display cancer stem cell (CSC) characteristics, can be isolated using the side population (SP) technique. Our aim was to search for a SP in human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) and to examine its chemoresistance and CSC(−like) phenotype.


Human PDAC samples were expanded in immunodeficient mice and first-generation xenografts analyzed for the presence of a Hoechst dye-effluxing SP using flow cytometry (FACS). To investigate chemoresistance of the SP, mice bearing PDAC xenografts were treated with gemcitabine and SP proportion determined. In addition, the SP and the main tumour cell population (MP) were sorted by FACS for RNA extraction to profile gene expression, and for culturing under sphere-forming conditions.


A SP was identified in all PDAC samples, analyzed. This SP was more resistant to gemcitabine than the other tumour cells as examined in vivo. Whole-genome expression profiling of the SP revealed upregulation of genes related to therapy resistance, apoptotic regulation and epithelial-mesenchymal transition. In addition, the SP displayed higher tumourigenic (CSC) activity than the MP as analyzed in vitro by sphere-forming capacity.


We identified a SP in human PDAC and uncovered a chemoresistant and CSC-associated phenotype. This SP may represent a new therapeutic target in pancreatic cancer.

Trial registration NCT00936104

Pancreatic cancer; Chemoresistance; Side population