Cancer stem cells (CSCs) have been involved in the maintenance, progression and relapse of several tumors, but their origin is still elusive. Here, in vitro transformed human fibroblasts (cen3tel cells) and the tumorsphere assay were used to search for and possibly characterize CSCs in transformed somatic cells. Cen3tel cells formed spheres showing self-renewal capacity and Sox2 overexpression, suggesting that they contained a subset of cells with CSC-like features. Sphere cells displayed deregulation of a c-MYC/miR-34a circuitry, likely associated with cell protection from apoptosis. Gene expression profiles of sphere cells revealed an extensive transcriptional reprogramming. Genes up-regulated in tumorspheres identified processes related to tumorigenesis and stemness, as cholesterol biosynthesis, apoptosis suppression, interferon and cytokine mediated signalling pathways. Sphere cells engrafted into NSG mice more rapidly than adherent cells, but both cell populations were tumorigenic. These results indicate that, during transformation, human somatic cells can acquire CSC properties, confirming the high plasticity of tumor cells. However, CSC-like cells are not the only tumorigenic population in transformed cells, indicating that the CSC phenotype and tumorigenicity can be uncoupled.
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