Here, we show that new mitochondrial biogenesis is required for the anchorage independent survival and propagation of cancer stem-like cells (CSCs). More specifically, we used the drug XCT790 as an investigational tool, as it functions as a specific inhibitor of the ERRα-PGC1 signaling pathway, which governs mitochondrial biogenesis. Interestingly, our results directly demonstrate that XCT790 efficiently blocks both the survival and propagation of tumor initiating stem-like cells (TICs), using the MCF7 cell line as a model system. Mechanistically, we show that XCT790 suppresses the activity of several independent signaling pathways that are normally required for the survival of CSCs, such as Sonic hedgehog, TGFβ-SMAD, STAT3, and Wnt signaling. We also show that XCT790 markedly reduces oxidative mitochondrial metabolism (OXPHOS) and that XCT790-mediated inhibition of CSC propagation can be prevented or reversed by Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR), a mitochondrial fuel. Consistent with our findings, over-expression of ERRα significantly enhances the efficiency of mammosphere formation, which can be blocked by treatment with mitochondrial inhibitors. Similarly, mammosphere formation augmented by FOXM1, a downstream target of Wnt/β-catenin signaling, can also be blocked by treatment with three different classes of mitochondrial inhibitors (XCT790, oligomycin A, or doxycycline). In this context, our unbiased proteomics analysis reveals that FOXM1 drives the expression of >90 protein targets associated with mitochondrial biogenesis, glycolysis, the EMT and protein synthesis in MCF7 cells, processes which are characteristic of an anabolic CSC phenotype. Finally, doxycycline is an FDA-approved antibiotic, which is very well-tolerated in patients. As such, doxycycline could be re-purposed clinically as a ‘safe’ mitochondrial inhibitor, to target FOXM1 and mitochondrial biogenesis in CSCs, to prevent tumor recurrence and distant metastasis, thereby avoiding patient relapse.
Tumor-initiating cells (TICs), a.k.a. cancer stem cells (CSCs), are difficult to eradicate with conventional approaches to cancer treatment, such as chemo-therapy and radiation. As a consequence, the survival of residual CSCs is thought to drive the onset of tumor recurrence, distant metastasis, and drug-resistance, which is a significant clinical problem for the effective treatment of cancer. Thus, novel approaches to cancer therapy are needed urgently, to address this clinical need. Towards this end, here we have investigated the therapeutic potential of graphene oxide to target cancer stem cells. Graphene and its derivatives are well-known, relatively inert and potentially non-toxic nano-materials that form stable dispersions in a variety of solvents. Here, we show that graphene oxide (of both big and small flake sizes) can be used to selectively inhibit the proliferative expansion of cancer stem cells, across multiple tumor types. For this purpose, we employed the tumor-sphere assay, which functionally measures the clonal expansion of single cancer stem cells under anchorage-independent conditions. More specifically, we show that graphene oxide effectively inhibits tumor-sphere formation in multiple cell lines, across 6 different cancer types, including breast, ovarian, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers, as well as glioblastoma (brain). In striking contrast, graphene oxide is non-toxic for “bulk” cancer cells (non-stem) and normal fibroblasts. Mechanistically, we present evidence that GO exerts its striking effects on CSCs by inhibiting several key signal transduction pathways (WNT, Notch and STAT-signaling) and thereby inducing CSC differentiation. Thus, graphene oxide may be an effective non-toxic therapeutic strategy for the eradication of cancer stem cells, via differentiation-based nano-therapy.
Atovaquone is an FDA-approved anti-malarial drug, which first became clinically available in the year 2000. Currently, its main usage is for the treatment of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and/or toxoplasmosis in immune-compromised patients. Atovaquone is a hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone analogue of ubiquinone, also known as Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10). It is a well-tolerated drug that does not cause myelo-suppression. Mechanistically, it is thought to act as a potent and selective OXPHOS inhibitor, by targeting the CoQ10-dependence of mitochondrial complex III. Here, we show for the first time that atovaquone also has anti-cancer activity, directed against Cancer Stem-like Cells (CSCs). More specifically, we demonstrate that atovaquone treatment of MCF7 breast cancer cells inhibits oxygen-consumption and metabolically induces aerobic glycolysis (the Warburg effect), as well as oxidative stress. Remarkably, atovaquone potently inhibits the propagation of MCF7-derived CSCs, with an IC-50 of 1 μM, as measured using the mammosphere assay. Atovaquone also maintains this selectivity and potency in mixed populations of CSCs and non-CSCs. Importantly, these results indicate that glycolysis itself is not sufficient to maintain the proliferation of CSCs, which is instead strictly dependent on mitochondrial function. In addition to targeting the proliferation of CSCs, atovaquone also induces apoptosis in both CD44+/CD24low/− CSC and ALDH+ CSC populations, during exposure to anchorage-independent conditions for 12 hours. However, it has no effect on oxygen consumption in normal human fibroblasts and, in this cellular context, behaves as an anti-inflammatory, consistent with the fact that it is well-tolerated in patients treated for infections. Future studies in xenograft models and human clinical trials may be warranted, as the IC-50 of atovaquone's action on CSCs (1 μM) is >50 times less than its average serum concentration in humans.
DNA-PK is an enzyme that is required for proper DNA-repair and is thought to confer radio-resistance in cancer cells. As a consequence, it is a high-profile validated target for new pharmaceutical development. However, no FDA-approved DNA-PK inhibitors have emerged, despite many years of drug discovery and lead optimization. This is largely because existing DNA-PK inhibitors suffer from poor pharmacokinetics. They are not well absorbed and/or are unstable, with a short plasma half-life. Here, we identified the first FDA-approved DNA-PK inhibitor by “chemical proteomics”. In an effort to understand how doxycycline targets cancer stem-like cells (CSCs), we serendipitously discovered that doxycycline reduces DNA-PK protein expression by nearly 15-fold (> 90%). In accordance with these observations, we show that doxycycline functionally radio-sensitizes breast CSCs, by up to 4.5-fold. Moreover, we demonstrate that DNA-PK is highly over-expressed in both MCF7- and T47D-derived mammospheres. Interestingly, genetic or pharmacological inhibition of DNA-PK in MCF7 cells is sufficient to functionally block mammosphere formation. Thus, it appears that active DNA-repair is required for the clonal expansion of CSCs. Mechanistically, doxycycline treatment dramatically reduced the oxidative mitochondrial capacity and the glycolytic activity of cancer cells, consistent with previous studies linking DNA-PK expression to the proper maintenance of mitochondrial DNA integrity and copy number. Using a luciferase-based assay, we observed that doxycycline treatment quantitatively reduces the anti-oxidant response (NRF1/2) and effectively blocks signaling along multiple independent pathways normally associated with stem cells, including STAT1/3, Sonic Hedgehog (Shh), Notch, WNT and TGF-beta signaling. In conclusion, we propose that the efficacy of doxycycline as a DNA-PK inhibitor should be tested in Phase-II clinical trials, in combination with radio-therapy. Doxycycline has excellent pharmacokinetics, with nearly 100% oral absorption and a long serum half-life (18–22 hours), at a standard dose of 200-mg per day. In further support of this idea, we show that doxycycline effectively inhibits the mammosphere-forming activity of primary breast cancer samples, derived from metastatic disease sites (pleural effusions or ascites fluid). Our results also have possible implications for the radio-therapy of brain tumors and/or brain metastases, as doxycycline is known to effectively cross the blood-brain barrier. Further studies will be needed to determine if other tetracycline family members also confer radio-sensitivity.
Here, we developed an isogenic cell model of “stemness” to facilitate protein biomarker discovery in breast cancer. For this purpose, we used knowledge gained previously from the study of the mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV). MMTV initiates mammary tumorigenesis in mice by promoter insertion adjacent to two main integration sites, namely Int-1 (Wnt1) and Int-2 (Fgf3), which ultimately activates Wnt/β-catenin signaling, driving the propagation of mammary cancer stem cells (CSCs). Thus, to develop a humanized model of MMTV signaling, we over-expressed WNT1 and FGF3 in MCF7 cells, an ER(+) human breast cancer cell line. We then validated that MCF7 cells over-expressing both WNT1 and FGF3 show a 3.5-fold increase in mammosphere formation, and that conditioned media from these cells is also sufficient to promote stem cell activity in untransfected parental MCF7 and T47D cells, as WNT1 and FGF3 are secreted factors. Proteomic analysis of this model system revealed the induction of i) EMT markers, ii) mitochondrial proteins, iii) glycolytic enzymes and iv) protein synthesis machinery, consistent with an anabolic CSC phenotype. MitoTracker staining validated the expected WNT1/FGF3-induced increase in mitochondrial mass and activity, which presumably reflects increased mitochondrial biogenesis. Importantly, many of the proteins that were up-regulated by WNT/FGF-signaling in MCF7 cells, were also transcriptionally over-expressed in human breast cancer cells in vivo, based on the bioinformatic analysis of public gene expression datasets of laser-captured patient samples. As such, this isogenic cell model should accelerate the discovery of new biomarkers to predict clinical outcome in breast cancer, facilitating the development of personalized medicine.Finally, we used mitochondrial mass as a surrogate marker for increased mitochondrial biogenesis in untransfected MCF7 cells. As predicted, metabolic fractionation of parental MCF7 cells, via MitoTracker staining, indicated that high mitochondrial mass is a new metabolic biomarker for the enrichment of anabolic CSCs, as functionally assessed by mammosphere-forming activity. This observation has broad implications for understanding the role of mitochondrial biogenesis in the propagation of stem-like cancer cells. Technically, this general metabolic approach could be applied to any cancer type, to identify and target the mitochondrial-rich CSC population.The implications of our work for understanding the role of mitochondrial metabolism in viral oncogenesis driven by random promoter insertions are also discussed, in the context of MMTV and ALV infections.
Bedaquiline (a.k.a., Sirturo) is an anti-microbial agent, which is approved by the FDA for the treatment of multi-drug resistant pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). Bedaquiline is a first-in-class diaryl-quinoline compound, that mechanistically inhibits the bacterial ATP-synthase, and shows potent activity against both drug-sensitive and drug-resistant TB. Interestingly, eukaryotic mitochondria originally evolved from engulfed aerobic bacteria. Thus, we hypothesized that, in mammalian cells, bedaquiline might also target the mitochondrial ATP-synthase, leading to mitochondrial dysfunction and ATP depletion. Here, we show that bedaquiline has anti-cancer activity, directed against Cancer Stem-like Cells (CSCs). More specifically, we demonstrate that bedaquiline treatment of MCF7 breast cancer cells inhibits mitochondrial oxygen-consumption, as well as glycolysis, but induces oxidative stress. Importantly, bedaquiline significantly blocks the propagation and expansion of MCF7-derived CSCs, with an IC-50 of approx. 1-μM, as determined using the mammosphere assay. Similarly, bedaquiline also reduces both the CD44+/CD24low/− CSC and ALDH+ CSC populations, under anchorage-independent growth conditions. In striking contrast, bedaquiline significantly increases oxygen consumption in normal human fibroblasts, consistent with the fact that it is well-tolerated in patients treated for TB infections. As such, future pre-clinical studies and human clinical trials in cancer patients may be warranted. Interestingly, we also highlight that bedaquiline shares certain structural similarities with trans-piceatannol and trans-resveratrol, which are known natural flavonoid inhibitors of the mitochondrial ATP-synthase (complex V) and show anti-aging properties.
Here, we identified two new molecular targets, which are functionally sufficient to metabolically confer the tamoxifen-resistance phenotype in human breast cancer cells. Briefly, ~20 proteins were first selected as potential candidates, based on unbiased proteomics analysis, using tamoxifen-resistant cell lines. Then, the cDNAs of the most promising candidates were systematically transduced into MCF-7 cells. Remarkably, NQO1 and GCLC were both functionally sufficient to autonomously confer a tamoxifen-resistant metabolic phenotype, characterized by i) increased mitochondrial biogenesis, ii) increased ATP production and iii) reduced glutathione levels. Thus, we speculate that pharmacological inhibition of NQO1 and GCLC may be new therapeutic strategies for overcoming tamoxifen-resistance in breast cancer patients. In direct support of this notion, we demonstrate that treatment with a known NQO1 inhibitor (dicoumarol) is indeed sufficient to revert the tamoxifen-resistance phenotype. As such, these findings could have important translational significance for the prevention of tumor recurrence in ER(+) breast cancers, which is due to an endocrine resistance phenotype. Importantly, we also show here that NQO1 has significant prognostic value as a biomarker for the prediction of tumor recurrence. More specifically, higher levels of NQO1 mRNA strongly predict patient relapse in high-risk ER(+) breast cancer patients receiving endocrine therapy (mostly tamoxifen; H.R. > 2.15; p = 0.007).
Here, we used a data-mining and informatics approach to discover new biomarkers of resistance to hormonal therapy in breast cancer. More specifically, we investigated whether nuclear-encoded genes associated with mitochondrial biogenesis can be used to predict tumor recurrence, distant metastasis and treatment failure in high-risk breast cancer patients. Overall, this strategy allowed us to directly provide in silico validation of the prognostic value of these mitochondrial components in large and clinically relevant patient populations, with >15 years of follow-up data. For this purpose, we employed a group of 145 ER(+) luminal A breast cancer patients, with lymph-node (LN) metastasis at diagnosis, that were treated with tamoxifen, but not any chemotherapy agents. Using this approach, we identified >60 new individual mitochondrial biomarkers that predicted treatment failure and tumor recurrence, with hazard-ratios (HR) of up to 4.17 (p=2.2e-07). These include mitochondrial chaperones (HSPD1, HSPA9), membrane proteins (VDAC2, TOMM70A) and anti-oxidants (SOD2), as well as 18 different mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs) and >20 distinct components of the OXPHOS complexes. In addition, we combined 4 mitochondrial proteins (HSPD1, UQCRB, MRPL15, COX17), to generate a compact mitochondrial gene signature, associated with a HR of 5.34 (p=1e-09). This signature also successfully predicted distant metastasis and was effective in larger groups of ER(+) (N=2,447), basal (N=540) and HER2(+) (N=193) breast cancers. It was also effective in all breast cancers (N=3,180), if considered together as a single group. Based on this analysis, we conclude that mitochondrial biogenesis should be considered as a new therapeutic target for overcoming tumor recurrence, distant metastasis and treatment failure in patients with breast cancer. In summary, we identified individual mitochondrial biomarkers and 2 compact mitochondrial gene signatures that can be used to predict tamoxifen-resistance and tumor recurrence, at their initial diagnosis, in patients with advanced breast cancer. In the long-term, these mitochondrial biomarkers could provide a new companion diagnostics platform to help clinicians to accurately predict the response to hormonal therapy in ER(+) breast cancer patients, facilitating more personalized and effective treatment. Similarly, these mitochondrial markers could be used as companion diagnostics, to determine which breast cancer patients would benefit most from clinical treatments with mitochondrially-targeted anti-cancer therapeutics. Finally, we also showed that these mitochondrial markers are superior when directly compared with conventional biomarkers, such as Ki67 and PCNA.
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