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Induction of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and Gli1 expression in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) spheroid cultures

Nesrine Essid, Jean Claude Chambard, Amel Benammar Elgaaïed


Tumor microenvironment provides a specialized niche in which a population of stem-like cells is enriched and contributes to cancer progression. Moreover, cancer stem cell (CSC) phenotype has been associated with epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Here we investigated the effect of tumor microenvironment on the phenotypic characteristics of head and neck cancer cells and expression of CSC markers using a three-dimensional (3D), spheroid, culture system of CAL33 cell line from human tongue squamous cell carcinoma. CAL33 cells derived from 2D monolayer cultures were grown in spheroid cultures containing serum-free medium (epidermal growth factor [EGF], fibroblast growth factor [FGF], and insulin). Adherent CAL33 cells from spheroids or standard control cultures were grown in the presence/absence of serum in combination with hypoxia/normoxia. Markers of EMT, CSC, and hypoxia were analyzed either by Western blotting, immunofluorescence, or reverse transcription quantitative PCR. Spheroid cultures showed hypoxic microenvironment (high carbonic anhydrase IX [CAIX] expression), mesenchymal-like characteristics (reduced E-cadherin and increased vimentin and N-cadherin expression, presence of larger colonies comprised of larger, spread cells with lower density), and increased expression of the CSC marker glioma-associated oncogene homolog 1 (Gli1). These effects were recapitulated in serum-free adherent CAL33 cells maintained for prolonged periods in hypoxia (1% O2) but, in contrast, were completely abolished by the presence of serum. Overall, we found that a combination of hypoxia, EGF and FGF was essential to induce the EMT in adherent CAL33 cell cultures. The addition of serum rapidly reverts the EMT of cells, affects CSC phenotype and, thus, prevents the detection of such cells in tumor cell lines.


Head and neck cell carcinoma; cancer stem cells; CSCs, epithelial-mesenchymal transition; EMT; tumor microenvironment; hypoxia; Gli1

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