Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are a small subset of cancer cells capable of self-renewal and tumor maintenance. Eradicating cancer stem cells, the root of tumor origin and recurrence, has emerged as one promising approach to improve lung cancer survival. Cancer stem cells are reported to reside in the side population (SP) of cultured lung cancer cells. We report here the coexistence of a distinct population of non-SP (NSP) cells that have equivalent self-renewal capacity compared to SP cells in a lung tumor sphere assay. Compared with the corresponding cells in monolayer cultures, lung tumor spheres, formed from human non-small cell lung carcinoma cell lines A549 or H1299, showed marked morphologic differences and increased expression of the stem cell markers CD133 and OCT3/4. Lung tumor spheres also exhibited increased tumorigenic potential as only 10,000 lung tumor sphere cells were required to produce xenografts tumors in nude mice, whereas the same number of monolayer cells failed to induce tumors. We also demonstrate that lung tumor spheres showed decreased 26S proteasome activity compared to monolayer. By using the ZsGreen-cODC (C-terminal sequence that directs degradation of Ornithine Decarboxylase) reporter assay in NSCLC cell lines, only less than 1% monolayer cultures were ZsGreen positive indicating low 26S proteasome, whereas lung tumor sphere showed increased numbers of ZsGreen-positive cells, suggesting the enrichment of CSCs in sphere cultures.
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