Francesco Marampon

MEK/ERK/c-Myc axys sustains tumorigenicity and in vitro radioresistance of embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma stem-like cell population

Carmela Ciccarelli1, Bianca Maria Zani1, Vincenzo Tombolini2, Francesco Marampon2
1Department of Biotechnological and Applied Clinical Sciences, University of L’Aquila, L’Aquila, Italy; 2Department of Radiotherapy, University of Rome “Sapienza”, Rome, Italy

BACKGROUND:

The identification of signaling pathways that affect the cancer stem-like phenotype may provide insights into therapeutic targets for combating embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of the MEK/ERK pathway in controlling the cancer stem-like phenotype using a model of rhabdospheres derived from the embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma cell line (RD).

METHODS:

Rhabdospheres enriched in cancer stem like cells were obtained growing RD cells in non adherent condition in stem cell medium. Stem cell markers were evaluated by FACS analysis and immunoblotting. ERK1/2, myogenic markers, proteins of DNA repair and bone marrow X-linked kinase (BMX) expression were evaluated by immunoblotting analysis. Radiation was delivered using an x-6 MV photon linear accelerator. Xenografts were obtained in NOD/SCID mice by subcutaneously injection of rhabdosphere cells or cells pretreated with U0126 in stem cell medium.

RESULTS:

MEK/ERK inhibitor U0126 dramatically prevented rhabdosphere formation and down-regulated stem cell markers CD133, CXCR4 and Nanog expression, but enhanced ALDH, MAPK phospho-active p38 and differentiative myogenic markers. By contrast, MAPK p38 inhibition accelerated rhabdosphere formation and enhanced phospho-active ERK1/2 and Nanog expression. RD cells, chronically treated with U0126 and then xeno-transplanted in NOD/SCID mice, delayed tumor development and reduced tumor mass when compared with tumor induced by rhabdosphere cells. U0126 intraperitoneal administration to mice bearing rhabdosphere-derived tumors inhibited tumor growth . The MEK/ERK pathway role in rhabdosphere radiosensitivity was investigated in vitro. Disassembly of rhabdospheres was induced by both radiation or U0126, and further enhanced by combined treatment. In U0126-treated rhabdospheres, the expression of the stem cell markers CD133 and CXCR4 decreased and dropped even more markedly following combined treatment. The expression of BMX, a negative regulator of apoptosis, also decreased following combined treatment, which suggests an increase in radiosensitivity of rhabdosphere cells.

CONCLUSIONS:

Our results indicate that the MEK/ERK pathway plays a prominent role in maintaining the stem-like phenotype of RD cells, their survival and their innate radioresistance. Thus, therapeutic strategies that target cancer stem cells, which are resistant to traditional cancer therapies, may benefit from MEK/ERK inhibition combined with traditional radiotherapy, thereby providing a promising therapy for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma.

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