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Induction of stem-like cells with malignant properties by chronic exposure of human lung epithelial cells to single-walled carbon nanotubes
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  • Description:
    Background

    Carbon nanotubes (CNT) hold great promise to create new and better products for commercial and biomedical applications, but their long-term adverse health effects are a major concern. The objective of this study was to address human lung cancer risks associated with chronic pulmonary exposure to single-walled (SW) CNT through the fundamental understanding of cellular and molecular processes leading to carcinogenesis. We hypothesized that the acquisition of cancer stem cells (CSC), a subpopulation that drive tumor initiation and progression, may contribute to CNT carcinogenesis.

    Methods

    Non-tumorigenic human lung epithelial cells were chronically exposed to well-dispersed SWCNT for a period of 6 months at the physiologically relevant concentration of 0.02 μg/cm2 surface area dose. Chronic SWCNT-exposed cells were evaluated for the presence of CSC-like cells under CSC-selective conditions of tumor spheres and side population (SP). CSC-like cells were isolated using fluorescence-activated cell sorting and were assessed for aggressive behaviors, including acquired apoptosis resistance and increased cell migration and invasion in vitro, and tumor-initiating capability in vivo. Non-small cell lung cancer cells served as a positive control.

    Results

    We demonstrated for the first time the existence of CSC-like cells in all clones of chronic SWCNT-exposed lung epithelial cells. These CSC-like cells, in contrary to their non-CSC counterpart, possessed all biological features of lung CSC that are central to irreversible malignant transformation, self-renewal, aggressive cancer behaviors, and in vivo tumorigenesis. These cells also displayed aberrant stem cell markers, notably Nanog, SOX-2, SOX-17 and E-cadherin. Restored expression of tumor suppressor p53 abrogated CSC properties of CSC-like cells. Furthermore, we identified specific stem cell surface markers CD24low and CD133high that are associated with SWCNT-induced CSC formation and tumorigenesis.

    Conclusions

    Our findings provide new and compelling evidence for the acquisition of CSC-like cells induced by chronic SWCNT exposure, which are likely to be a major driving force for SWCNT tumorigenesis. Thus, our study supports prudent adoption of prevention strategies and implementation of exposure control for SWCNT. We also suggest that the detection of CSC and associated surface markers may provide an effective screening tool for prediction of the carcinogenic potential of SWCNT and related nanoparticles.

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  • Funding:
    EPS-1003907/PHS HHS/United States
    P20 RR016440/RR/NCRR NIH HHS/United States
    P30 GM103488/GM/NIGMS NIH HHS/United States
    P30 RR032138/GM103488/GM/NIGMS NIH HHS/United States
    R01-ES022968/ES/NIEHS NIH HHS/United States
    R01-HL095579/HL/NHLBI NIH HHS/United States
    S10 RR026378/RR/NCRR NIH HHS/United States
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