Characterization Of Human Mammary Stem Cells Grown As Mammospheres
Adult stem cells are a small population present within several tissues of an individual, possessing two unique properties: one, the ability to differentiate to give rise to all the cell types of the tissue, and second, the ability to self-renew and make more of their own kind. Owing to these two properties, stem cells underlie the process of organogenesis during development and tissue homeostasis in adult life. In the past decade a small sub-population of cells having phenotypic and functional properties similar to normal stem cells have been identified within several tumors. Only this sub-population of cancer cells seems to have the ability to both initiate and maintain tumors. These cells have been termed as ‘cancer stem cells’ (CSCs) owing to their striking similarities with the normal stem cells of the tissue. It is therefore of fundamental importance to understand normal stem cell biology in order to understand tumorigenesis. The rarity of normal stem cells within adult tissues, the absence of specific cell surface markers to identify and isolate them, and the absence of suitable culture conditions to maintain them has marred our understanding of stem cell behaviour. Recently, growth of mammary cells in serum free suspension cultures resulted in the generation of floating spheroids termed “mammospheres” that were shown to be enriched in stem/progenitor cell population. We established the mammosphere system in our laboratory using mastectomy samples obtained from the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology. In order to understand the composition of the spheres, the stem cell characteristics within them, and the long term self renewal potential of human mammary epithelial stem cells, a detailed phenotypic and functional characterization of the mammospheres was carried out. Phenotypic Characterization: Confocal microscopy of propidium iodide stained mammospheres demonstrated that these spheres are cellular and not hollow structures. Immunostaining revealed that primary mammospheres expressed the epithelial markers like E Cadherin, ESA, CK14, CK18 and CK 19, but failed to express nestin or CD34, indicating their epithelial origin, devoid of contamination from haematopoeitic or neural stem cells. The sizes of mammospheres ranged from 40 to 110 μm, while that of the cells within them ranged from 9-15 μm. Although the sizes of the largest and smallest spheres through subsequent passages remained consistent, the proportion of small spheres increased in later passages. These results indicate the difference in the sphere initiating cells. While a large sphere might be generated by a stem cell, a smaller sphere might be originating from a progenitor. Thus, heterogeneity exists within mammospheres, with respect to size and composition. Unique cell surface markers coupled with flow cytometry serves as useful tools to isolate stem cells. However, no specific marker profile has been reported for normal human breast stem cells. In several tissues, like blood, brain etc, markers of normal stem cells have been successfully used to isolate cancer stem cells within that tissue. Since breast cancer stem cells have already been identified as CD24low/-44high cells, we explored if the same marker profile would hold true to identify normal breast stem cells as well. Two-colour based flow cytometry revealed that only the CD24low/-44high subpopulation of mammospheres could re-generate mammospheres, as well as give rise to all the other cellular fractions. These data demonstrated that normal and cancerous breast stem cells share identical marker profile. Functional Characterization: In addition to cell surface markers, a Hoechst dye based strategy used to isolate stem cells, exploits their unique property to efflux certain lipophilic drugs and small molecules due to the overexpression of ABC family of cell surface transporters. Cells effluxing Hoechst appear as a low fluorescing ‘Side population’ (SP) in a bivariate FACS plot. We detected a small, but distinct SP in human breast cells, which had a CD24low44low profile, and failed to initiate new mammospheres. Thus, the SP cells in mammospheres failed to correspond to the stem cell subpopulation. The hallmark feature of a stem cell is its long term self renewal ability, given that it is the longest lived cell in the body. Long term culture of mammospheres was carried out by passaging the spheres every week. We failed to observe mammosphere formation beyond four passages though there were live, proliferating and undifferentiated cells in fourth passage spheres. These results suggested that either the mammopsheres didn’t contain stem cells to begin with, or their stemness is restricted to four in vitro passages. In order to assess if mammospheres contained stem cells to begin with, we assayed for telomerase activity, since in the adult tissue, only stem cells retain telomerase activity. Telomerase, an enzyme that maintains the length of telomeres through multiple rounds of cell division, is not active in somatic cells. We detected the expression and activity of this enzyme in primary mammospheres, suggesting that the spheres may contain stem cells withinthem Another unique property of a stem cell is its ‘quiescence’, owing to their infrequent divisions. This property is studied by chasing a label (like BrdU or H3-Thymidine), which is taken up by the cells at an earlier time point and retained within the cell after prolonged periods, like weeks or months. In long term culture of mammospheres, using BrdU as the label, 1-2 distinct cells could be detected within late passage spheres which had retained the label, indicating that stem cells may be present within the fourth passage mammospheres as well. Staining for β-Galactosidase activity revealed that almost 70% cells derived from fourth passage spheres were senescent. We speculated that this senescent environment might be one of the inhibitory reasons for further mammosphere formation. Alteration of mammosphere culture conditions for long term maintenance of stem cells. A high level of atmospheric O2 is known to be one of the reasons for inducing senescence in cells. Culturing cells in conventional tissue culture conditions exposes them to high levels of O2 (21%) as against the physiological levels of 1-3% O2. Therefore, to assess the effects of lowered, or physiologically relevant levels of O2 on mammosphere stem cell biology, the mammospheres were cultured in 3% O2. Under this altered condition, a close to 3-fold increase was observed in the number of mammospheres formed coupled with a significant increase in their survival and proliferation. In order to understand the molecular basis of this observation, a microarray based global gene expression profiling was carried out. We observed a significant upregulation of VEGF, a gene responsive to hypoxia; three growth factor related genes, namely adrenomedullin, cMET and osteopontin. Upregulation of β Catenin, the downstream effector of the Wnt signaling pathway was also observed, indicating a possible mechanism for the increase in self renewal seen in 3% O2. We also observed downregulation of the cell cycle inhibitor, Chk1, which in part might explain the observed increase in proliferation. The increase in the number of proliferating cells might be one of the reasons for an increase in the number of spheres, as observed in 3% O2. Even though a significant decrease in the number of senescent cells was detected at 3% O2, mammosphere formation was not seen beyond four passages. It is therefore possible that there are other physico-chemical parameters, comprising the niche of the mammospheres, coupled to the O2 level, which need to be improvised for long term culture of human mammary epithelial stem cells. To summarize, this work reports for the first time that human mammary epithelial stem cells have an identical marker profile as breast cancer stem cells, which is CD24low/-CD44high. It has also been demonstrated for the first time that in long term mammosphere culture, the number of self renewal divisions of human mammary stem cells is restricted to four in vitro passages, at which most of the cells undergo senescence. Altering one of the parameters of the niche, by culturing mammospheres at physiological O2 level failed to prolong the in vitro lifespan of the spheres, although cell survival, proliferation and sphere formation increased, indicating that the niche requirements of human mammary epithelial stem cells for their long term self renewal needs to be further characterized.