Open Access Open Badges Research article

MicroRNAs define distinct human neuroblastoma cell phenotypes and regulate their differentiation and tumorigenicity

Leleesha Samaraweera1*, Kathryn B Grandinetti2, Ruojun Huang3, Barbara A Spengler4 and Robert A Ross4

Author Affiliations

1 Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1300, Morris Park Ave, Bronx, NY 10461, USA

2 Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, San Diego, CA, USA

3 Edison, NJ, USA

4 Fordham University, 441 E. Fordham Road, Bronx, NY 10458, USA

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:309  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-309

Published: 2 May 2014



Neuroblastoma (NB) is the most common extracranial solid tumor in children. NB tumors and derived cell lines are phenotypically heterogeneous. Cell lines are classified by phenotype, each having distinct differentiation and tumorigenic properties. The neuroblastic phenotype is tumorigenic, has neuronal features and includes stem cells (I-cells) and neuronal cells (N-cells). The non-neuronal phenotype (S-cell) comprises cells that are non-tumorigenic with features of glial/smooth muscle precursor cells. This study identified miRNAs associated with each distinct cell phenotypes and investigated their role in regulating associated differentiation and tumorigenic properties.


A miRNA microarray was performed on the three cell phenotypes and expression verified by qRT-PCR. miRNAs specific for certain cell phenotypes were modulated using miRNA inhibitors or stable transfection. Neuronal differentiation was induced by RA; non-neuronal differentiation by BrdU. Changes in tumorigenicity were assayed by soft agar colony forming ability. N-myc binding to miR-375 promoter was assayed by chromatin-immunoprecipitation.


Unsupervised hierarchical clustering of miRNA microarray data segregated neuroblastic and non-neuronal cell lines and showed that specific miRNAs define each phenotype. qRT-PCR validation confirmed that increased levels of miR-21, miR-221 and miR-335 are associated with the non-neuronal phenotype, whereas increased levels of miR-124 and miR-375 are exclusive to neuroblastic cells. Downregulation of miR-335 in non-neuronal cells modulates expression levels of HAND1 and JAG1, known modulators of neuronal differentiation. Overexpression of miR-124 in stem cells induces terminal neuronal differentiation with reduced malignancy. Expression of miR-375 is exclusive for N-myc-expressing neuroblastic cells and is regulated by N-myc. Moreover, miR-375 downregulates expression of the neuronal-specific RNA binding protein HuD.


Thus, miRNAs define distinct NB cell phenotypes. Increased levels of miR-21, miR-221 and miR-335 characterize the non-neuronal, non-malignant phenotype and miR-335 maintains the non-neuronal features possibly by blocking neuronal differentiation. miR-124 induces terminal neuronal differentiation with reduction in malignancy. Data suggest N-myc inhibits neuronal differentiation of neuroblastic cells possibly by upregulating miR-375 which, in turn, suppresses HuD. As tumor differentiation state is highly predictive of patient survival, the involvement of these miRNAs with NB differentiation and tumorigenic state could be exploited in the development of novel therapeutic strategies for this enigmatic childhood cancer.

Neuroblastoma; Differentiation; Tumorigenicity; MicroRNAs; miR-375; miR-124; N-myc; HuD