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Open Access Research article

Characterization of in vivo chemoresistant human hepatocellular carcinoma cells with transendothelial differentiation capacities

Christian Marfels, Miriam Hoehn, Ernst Wagner and Michael Günther*

Author affiliations

Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Department of Pharmacy, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Butenandtstrasse 5-13, D-81377, Munich, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Cancer 2013, 13:176  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-176

Published: 2 April 2013

Abstract

Background

Chemotherapeutic treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma often leads to chemoresistance during therapy or upon relapse of tumors. For the development of better treatments a better understanding of biochemical changes in the resistant tumors is needed. In this study, we focus on the characterization of in vivo chemoresistant human hepatocellular carcinoma HUH-REISO established from a metronomically cyclophosphamide (CPA) treated HUH7 xenograft model.

Methods

SCID mice bearing subcutaneous HUH7 tumors were treated i.p. with 75 mg/kg CPA every six days. Tumors were evaluated by immunohistochemistry, a functional blood-flow Hoechst dye assay, and qRT-PCR for ALDH-1, Notch-1, Notch-3, HES-1, Thy-1, Oct-4, Sox-2 and Nanog mRNA levels. Cell lines of these tumors were analyzed by qRT-PCR and in endothelial transdifferentiation studies on matrigel.

Results

HUH-REISO cells, although slightly more sensitive against activated CPA in vitro than parental HUH-7 cells, fully retained their in vivo CPA chemoresistance upon xenografting into SCID mice. Histochemical analysis of HUH-REISO tumors in comparison to parental HUH-7 cells and passaged HUH-PAS cells (in vivo passaged without chemotherapeutic pressure) revealed significant changes in host vascularization of tumors and especially in expression of the tumor-derived human endothelial marker gene PECAM-1/CD31 in HUH-REISO. In transdifferentiation studies with limited oxygen and metabolite diffusion, followed by a matrigel assay, only the chemoresistant HUH-REISO cells exhibited tube formation potential and expression of human endothelial markers ICAM-2 and PECAM-1/CD31. A comparative study on stemness and plasticity markers revealed upregulation of Thy-1, Oct-4, Sox-2 and Nanog in resistant xenografts. Under therapeutic pressure by CPA, tumors of HUH-PAS and HUH-REISO displayed regulations in Notch-1 and Notch-3 expression.

Conclusions

Chemoresistance of HUH-REISO was not manifested under standard in vitro but under in vivo conditions. HUH-REISO cells showed increased pluripotent capacities and the ability of transdifferentiation to endothelial like cells in vitro and in vivo. These cells expressed typical endothelial surface marker and functionality. Although the mechanism behind chemoresistance of HUH-REISO and involvement of plasticity remains to be clarified, we hypothesize that the observed Notch regulations and upregulation of stemness genes in resistant xenografts are involved in the observed cell plasticity.

Keywords:
Cyclophosphamide; Chemoresistance; Tumor plasticity; Cancer stemness