Derivation and Characterization of Cancer Stem Cells from Human ES Cells

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
Award Value: 
Disease Focus: 
Blood Cancer
Stem Cell Use: 
Cancer Stem Cell
Embryonic Stem Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
Cancer Stem Cell
Public Abstract: 

Cancer is the leading cause of death for people younger than 85 (1). High cancer mortality rates underscore the need for more sensitive diagnostic techniques as well as therapies that selectively target cells responsible for cancer propagation (1) Compelling studies suggest that human cancer stem cells (CSC) arise from aberrantly self-renewing tissue specific stem or progenitor cells and are responsible for cancer propagation and therapeutic resistance (2-9). Although the majority of current cancer therapies eradicate rapidly dividing cells within the tumor, the rare CSC population may be quiescent and then reactivate resulting in disease progression and relapse (2-9). We recently demonstrated that CSC are involved in progression of chronic phase chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a disease that has been the subject of many landmark discoveries in cancer research(19-30), to a more aggressive and therapeutically recalcitrant myeloid blast crisis (BC) phase. These CSC share the same cell surface markers as granulocyte-macrophage progenitors (GMP) but have aberrantly gained the capacity to self-renew as a result of activation of the Wnt/-catenin stem cell self-renewal pathway (4). Because human embryonic stem cells (hESC) have robust self-renewal capacity and can provide a potentially limitless source of tissue specific stem and progenitor cells in vitro, they represent an ideal model system for generating and characterizing human CSC (10-18). Thus, hESC cell research harbors tremendous potential for developing life-saving therapy for patients with cancer by providing a platform to rapidly and rationally test new therapies that specifically target CSC (2-18). To provide a robust model system for screening novel anti-CSC therapies, we propose to generate and characterize CSC from hESC (10-18). We will investigate the role of genes that are essential for initiation of CML such as BCR-ABL and additional mutations such as b-catenin implicated in CSC propagation (19-30). The efficacy of specific Wnt/b-catenin antagonists at inhibiting BCR-ABL+ human ES cell self-renewal, survival and proliferation alone and in combination with potent BCR-ABL antagonists will be assessed in sensitive in vitro and in vivo assays with the ultimate aim of developing highly active anti-CSC therapy that may halt cancer progression and obviate therapeutic resistance (4,31).

Statement of Benefit to California: 

The research outlined in this proposal represents a unique opportunity for collaborations between investigators from disparate disciplines to use human embryonic stem cells to challenge an existing paradigm namely that leukemic blasts are responsible for progression of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) rather than leukemic stem cells (LSC). Current clinical diagnostic tests are not sufficiently sensitive to predict timing of progression for all patients with CML nor are they adequate for determining the type of therapeutic intervention required. Moreover, the primary therapy for CML, Abl kinase inhibition, was shown to be cardiotoxic when given long-term at high doses. Furthermore, amplification of BCR-ABL is not the sole event that occurs during CML progression to blast crisis. Identification and inhibition of molecular mutations responsible for the generation of LSC in CML blood and/or marrow may prevent progression to blast crisis (BC) and would represent an innovative, effective form of CML therapy. Modeling of LSC responsible for CML progression in human embryonic stem cells could have a significant impact on our understanding of the pathophysiology of CML, provide novel diagnostic and therapeutic modalities and improve the quality and possibly quantity of life of patients with CML. By using BCR-ABL transduced human embryonic stem cells, we will rigorously evaluate the LSC hypothesis and as a consequence, the additional molecular events required for progression to blast crisis CML. The ultimate aims of this grant are to develop more sensitive methods to predict leukemic progression and to identify novel molecular therapeutic targets through the development of LSC models using human embryonic stem cells. We aim to provide a robust, reproducible system for testing novel anti-LSC compounds alone and in combination in order to expedite the development of novel therapeutic agents for anti-LSC clinical trials at {REDACTED}. Not only may the translational research performed in the context of this grant speed the delivery of innovative anti-LSC therapies for Californians with leukemia, it will help to train California’s future R&D workforce in addition to developing leaders in translational medicine. This grant will provide the personnel working on the project with a clear view of the importance of their research to cancer therapy and a better perspective on future career opportunities in California.

Progress Report: 

SEED Grant Research Summary
Compelling studies suggest that cancer stem cells (CSC) arise from primitive self-renewing progenitor cells. Although many cancer therapies target rapidly dividing cells, CSC may be quiescent i.e. asleep resulting in therapeutic resistance. Recently, we demonstrated that CSC drive progression of chronic phase (CP) chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a subject of many landmark cancer research discoveries, to a therapeutically recalcitrant myeloid blast crisis (BC) phase. CML CSC share cell surface markers with granulocyte-macrophage progenitors (GMP) and have amplified expression of the CML fusion gene, BCR-ABL. In addition, they aberrantly gain self-renewal capacity, in part, as a result Wnt/β-catenin activation. Because human embryonic stem cells (hESC) have robust regenerative capacity and can provide a potentially limitless source of tissue specific progenitor cells in vitro, they represent an ideal model system for generating and characterizing human CSC. The main goals of this research were to generate CSC from hESC to provide an experimentally amenable platform to expedite the development of sensitive diagnostics that predict progression and combined modality anti-CSC therapy.
To this end, we tested whether BCR-ABL expression in hESC is sufficient to induce changes characteristic of CML stem cells. Unlike mouse ESC, introduction of a novel lentiviral BCR-ABL vector into hESC did not drive myeloid differentiation nor did it induce stromal independence in vitro underscoring key differences between mouse and human hESC and the importance of in vivo models. Notably, Hues16 cells had a higher propensity to differentiate into CD34+ cells than other hESC lines particularly in AGM co-cultures and thus, were used in subsequent in vivo experiments. Moreover, this SEED grant funded Yosuke Minami in Professor Jean Wang’s lab to create a unique CML blast crisis mouse model typified by GMP expansion and resistance to a BCR-ABL inhibitor, imatinib (Minami et al, PNAS 2008;105:17967-72). In addition, a bioluminescent humanized model of blast crisis CML was created based on transplantation of GMP from patient blood into immune deficient mice (RAG2-/-gc-/-). Cells were tagged with firefly luciferase that emits a bioluminescent signal so that leukemic transplantation efficiency could be tracked in vivo (IVIS). As few as 1,000 human blast crisis CML GMP could transplant leukemia in immune deficient mice thereby providing an important model for studying the molecular events that contribute to leukemic transformation (Abrahamsson et al, PNAS 2009;106:3925-9).
In the second aim, we hypothesized that BCR-ABL is sufficient for generating CML from self-renewing stem cells. In these studies, Hues16 cells differentiated into CD34+ cells were lentivirally transduced with BCR-ABL leading to sustained BCR-ABL engraftment in 50% of transplanted mice. Chronic phase CD34+ cells derived from CML blood were less efficient at sustaining CML engraftment (7%) suggesting that hESC derived CD34+ cells have higher self-renewal potential and are similar to advanced phase CML progenitors.
Thirdly, we hypothesized that BCR-ABL was necessary but not sufficient for progression to blast crisis. Introduction of lentiviral activated beta-catenin or shRNA to GSK3beta, together with BCR-ABL did not enhance BCR-ABL engraftment compared with BCR-ABL transduction of hESC alone. These studies suggested that hESC may already have sufficient self-renewal capacity to sustain the malignant CML clone and are molecularly comparable to advanced CML progenitors that behave like CSC. In addition, through extensive cDNA sequencing of human blast crisis CML progenitors, we found that 57% of samples harbored a misspliced form of GSK3beta that promoted tumor production and could serve as a novel prognostic marker in CML clinical trials (Abrahamsson et al, PNAS 2009;106:3925-9).
In the final aim, we hypothesized that CML CSC are not eliminated by BCR-ABL inhibitors alone and that combined modality therapy will be required. In collaborative research involving in vitro analysis of imatinib resistant CML progenitors and more recently in a humanized mouse model of blast crisis CML, we found that dasatinib, a potent BCR-ABL inhibitor, is necessary but not sufficient for CSC eradication. Discovery of a GSK3beta deregulation, a negative regulator of both beta-catenin and sonic hedgehog (Shh) pathways (Zhang et al, Nature 2009), led us to disover that Shh combined with BCR-ABL inhibition abrogated CSC driven tumor formation (manuscript in preparation) providing the impetus for an upcoming Pfizer sponsored Shh inhibitor clinical trial for refractory hematologic malignancies.