Emerging evidence shows that many cancers are organized as cellular hierarchies sustained by a subpopulation of cancer stem cells (CSC). It is thought that CSC properties influence therapy response, disease relapse, and overall survival. However, little is currently known about the molecular pathways that control stem cell behaviour. Our goal is to identify and characterize the molecular regulatory networks that govern the self-renewal and developmental program of human leukemia stem cells (LSC).
To expand our understanding of LSC function, we selected genes from our previously established LSC transcriptional program as novel candidate regulators of stem cell function. The LSC transcriptional program was identified by fractionation of 16 primary human acute myeloid leukemia (AML) samples into four populations that were subjected to sensitive in vivo LSC assays. mRNA expression analysis was performed on each fraction and a global LSC-specific signature was determined from functionally defined LSC fractions. Using similar methodology, a hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) enriched gene signature was established from human cord blood. Bioinformatic analysis identified a core transcriptional program that LSCs and HSCs share, revealing the molecular machinery that underlies stemness properties. The LSC and HSC signatures have prognostic significance independent of other factors when validated on a large cohort of cytogenetically normal AML patients. We have begun experiments to determine the role of 17 candidate stem cell regulators using functional in vivo and in vitro assays.
We first examined the effect of candidate gene overexpression in normal HSC using xenograft assays. Lineage negative cord blood cells were transduced with lentiviral overexpression vectors, injected into immune-deficient mice and engraftment of human cells was measured after 12 weeks. In the preliminary round of in vivo analysis, over-expression of GPR56 increased the engraftment capability of HSCs in immune-deficient recipients compared to control (p=0.0019). GPR56 is involved in cell adhesion and differentiation and evidence is accumulating for a role in various cancers such as melanoma, esophageal cancer, and glioma. By qPCR analysis we observed that GPR56 mRNA is more highly expressed in both LSC-enriched and primitive normal hematopoietic cell populations, including highly purified HSC, compared to more mature cell populations such as AML blasts and normal lineage committed progenitor cells.
In conclusion, our LSC and HSC data established that determinants of stemness influence clinical outcome of AML patients. We have identified multiple novel candidate stem cell-related genes and provided evidence for a role for GPR56 in hematopoietic stem cell regulation.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.