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J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2013 March; 14(3): 216–223.
PMCID: PMC3596572

This article has been retractedRetraction in: J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2014 November; 15(11): 1012    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Characterization of cancer stem-like cells in the side population cells of human gastric cancer cell line MKN-45*


Objective: Side population (SP) cells may play a crucial role in tumorigenesis and the recurrence of cancer. Many kinds of cell lines and tissues have demonstrated the presence of SP cells, including several gastric cancer cell lines. This study is aimed to identify the cancer stem-like cells in the SP of gastric cancer cell line MKN-45. Methods: We used fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS) to sort SP cells in the human gastric carcinoma cell line MKN-45 (cells labeled with Hoechst 33342) and then characterized the cancer stem-like properties of SP cells. Results: This study found that the SP cells had higher clone formation efficiency than major population (MP) cells. Five stemness-related gene expression profiles, including OCT-4, SOX-2, NANOG, CD44, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-binding cassette transporters gene ABCG2, were tested in SP and MP cells using quantitative real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Western blot was used to show the difference of protein expression between SP and MP cells. Both results show that there was significantly higher protein expression in SP cells than in MP cells. When inoculated into non-obese diabetic/severe combined immunodeficiency (NOD/SCID) mice, SP cells show higher tumorigenesis tendency than MP cells. Conclusions: These results indicate that SP cells possess cancer stem cell properties and prove that SP cells from MKN-45 are gastric cancer stem-like cells.

Keywords: ATP-binding cassette transporters, Side population cells, Stem cells, Benzimidazole (Hoechst 33342), Stomach neoplasm

1. Introduction

Cancer is one of the major causes of mortality after acute contagious diseases, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. The higher mortality rate in cancer is due to increased cases of relapse and metastasis. Cancer stem cell (CSC) hypothesis has received more and more attention in recent times for its better explanation of the initiation of relapse and metastasis in several types of carcinomas including gastric carcinoma (Reya et al., 2001; Houghton et al., 2004; McDonald et al., 2008). In recent research, several malignant tumor tissues and cell lines have been discovered to possess CSCs, and include acute lymphoblastic leukemia and several solid tumors like breast, colon, hepatic, prostate, lung, and gastric cancers (Alvi et al., 2003; Chiba et al., 2006; Ho et al., 2007; Ricci-Vitiani et al., 2007; Fukuda et al., 2009; Oates et al., 2009). This has strengthened the hypothesis that the initiation of relapse and metastasis may be caused by CSCs.

Gastric cancer is still the 4th most common cancer and the 2nd leading cause of cancer mortality all over the world. There are about one million new cases per year worldwide and 850 000 deaths from the disease. The incidence in most western countries lies between 10 and 15 new cases per 100 000 people per year. However, Japan, Korea, and China now lead with up to 80 new cases per 100 000 people per year (Parkin et al., 2005; Krejs, 2010). The most effective and specific methods available to deal with the disease include local resection, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. The identification and isolation of the CSCs, which possess higher specificity to a particular type of cancer, is being looked to as an important step to improve the therapeutic options in the treatment of cancer. Recently, some researchers used fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS) to differentiate side population (SP) and major population(MP) cells, mainly by employing the nucleic acid dye Hoechst 33342 to stain the cancer cells (Goodell et al., 1996; Huang et al., 2009). Similar methods may be applied in some tumors whose stem cell markers are not known. Our study used this method to sort SP cells from gastric cancer cell lines and then tested the molecular characteristics and biological behavior of these cells. Our study established that SP cells were gastric cancer stem-like cells.

2. Materials and methods

2.1. Cell culture

Human gastric adenocarcinoma cell line MKN-45 was obtained from the Cancer Institute, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and was separately maintained in Royal Park Memorial Institute (RPMI) 1640 (Invitrogen, USA) supplemented with 10% (0.1 g/ml) fetal bovine serum (FBS), 100 U/ml penicillin G, and 100 μg/ml streptomycin. Both kinds of cells were maintained at 37 °C in a humidified 5% CO2 incubator.

2.2. Fluorescence activated cell sorting

Near confluent cells from MKN-45 were harvested by trypsinization with 0.25% (2.5 g/L) trypsin ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA; Invitrogen, USA), centrifuged at the rate of 1 000 r/min for 10 min, washed for two times with phosphate buffered saline (PBS), resuspended at 1×106 cells/ml in pre-warmed 37 °C medium of RPMI 1640 with 2% (0.02 g/ml) fetal calf serum (FCS), and passed through 40 μm cell strainers (BD Falcon, USA) to get single-cell suspensions. The cells were then labeled with Hoechst 33342 (Sigma-Aldrich, USA) at a concentration of 5 μg/ml. The labeled cells were incubated in the dark for 60–75 min in a 37 °C water bath with intermittent mixing, either alone or with 75 μmol/L verapamil (Sigma-Aldrich, USA). The cells were suspended on ice in PBS containing 2% FBS after staining and maintained at 4 °C until flow cytometry analysis. Cells were labeled with 1 μg/ml propidium iodide (PI) to assess viability 5 min before examination. The stained cells were analyzed using a FACS Aria II (BD Biosciences, San Jose, CA, USA). The Hoechst dye was excited by ultra-violet laser at 375 nm and its fluorescence measured with 450/40 nm (Hoechst blue) and 695/40 LP (long-pass, Hoechst red) optical filters.

2.3. Cell growth curve and clone formation assays

Fresh sorted SP and MP cells of MKN-45 were incubated immediately at 2×103 cells per well in 96-well plates, at a total volume of 200 μl. Each subpopulation had 10 replicates cultured in RPMI 1640 with 10% (0.1 g/ml) FBS. The culture medium was removed each day during the following 7 d and 3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay was performed in a routine manner. The procedure was repeated three times. We plotted the growth curve according to the absorbance of each well from a Bio-Rad enzyme reader at the wavelength of 570 nm.

SP and MP cells were counted and plated in 6-well plates at 250 cells per well in triplicate after sorting, and then cultured in RPMI 1640 with 10% FBS for 10–14 d. When most cell clones reached more than 50 cells, they were washed twice with PBS, fixed in methanol for 15 min, and stained with crystal violet dye for 15 min at room temperature. The number of colonies containing more than 50 cells was counted. The colony formation efficiency (CFE) was calculated via colony number/seeding cell number×100%, and the results compared.

2.4. Quantitative real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay

Total cell RNA was extracted with TRIzol reagent (Invitrogen, USA) from fresh sorted SP and MP cells, RNA concentrations were measured by UV-visible spectrophotometer (Biomate 3S Thermo scientific), and the RNA quality was tested by electrophoresis. Each 200 ng RNA was reverse-transcribed into cDNA using 5× first-strand buffer, Oligo(dT)-15 primers, dNTP mixture, RNase free dH2O, RNase inhibitor (Tiangen, Beijing, China), and reverse-transcribed into cDNA by Moloney murine leukemia virus (M-MLV) according to the protocol of the kit (TaKaRa, Dalian, China). The PCR primers used for amplification were as follows (Li et al., 1993; Hadnagy et al., 2006): glyceraldehydes-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), forward 5′-TTGGTATCGTGGAAGGACTCA-3′ and reverse 5′-TGTCATCATATTTGGCAGGTTT-3′ for a 249-bp fragment; ABCG2, forward 5′-GGAGGCCTTGGGATACTTTGAA-3′ and reverse 5′-GAGCTATAGAGGCCTGGGGATTAC-3′ for a 380-bp fragment; OCT-4, forward 5′-AGCCCTCATTTCACCAGGCC-3′, and reverse 5′-GATGGCGTACTGTGGGCCCC-3′ for a 456-bp product fragment; CD44, forward 5′-CAGACCTGCCCAATGCCTTTGATGGAC-3′ and reverse 5′-CAAAGCCAAGGCCAAGAGGGCTGCC-3′ for a 446-bp product fragment; NANOG, forward 5′-GCAAACAACCCACTTCTGC-3′ and reverse 5′-AGGCCTTCTGCGTCACAC-3′ for a 280-bp product fragment; SOX-2, forward 5′-ACCTCTTCCTCCCACTCC-3′ and reverse 5′-TCCCATTTCCCTCGTTT-3′ for a 248-bp product fragment. Thermal cycler conditions were as follows: initial incubation at 95 °C for 10 min, then 35 cycles alternating in turn with 95 °C for 10 s, 60 °C for 20 s, and 72 °C for 15 s, and then maintained at 72 °C for 10 min. The PCR products were separated by electrophoresis in 2% (0.02 g/ml) agarose gel.

2.5. Western blot

SP and MP cells were washed with cold PBS after sorting and lysed in ice-cold RIPA buffer containing protein inhibitors (TaKaRa, Dalian, China). The cell lysates were then centrifuged at 12 000 r/min for 20 min at 4 °C. Supernatants were collected for total protein and protein concentrations were measured by the bicinchoninic acid (BCA) method. Equivalent amount of protein in each sample was separated on a 10% (0.1 g/ml) sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) for about 120–150 min at 60–80 V and then electrotransferred onto polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) membrane for 150–180 min at 90 mA. The membranes were blocked with 5% (0.05 g/ml) slim milk in Tris-buffered saline with Tween-20 (TBST) and probed with primary antibodies followed by horseradish peroxidase (HRP)-conjugated goat anti-rabbit IgG. The primary antibody used was rabbit polyclonal anti-HA (human antigen) antibody (1:1 000, Cell Signaling, USA). The membranes were developed using an enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL) detection system to transfer to film (Millipore).

2.6. Xenograft

Non-obese diabetic/severe combined immunodeficiency (NOD/SCID) mice were bought from the Animal Institute of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College and were maintained in microisolator cages. All experiments were approved by the Animal Care Committee of Experimental Animal Centre in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Hospital. The animal studies were performed in accordance with the guidelines of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. For NOD/SCID mice test, fresh sorted 5×105, 1×105, 5×104 MP cells and 1×105, 5×104, 1×104, 2×103, 1×103, 5×102 SP cells were suspended in 200 μl RPMI 1640 and inoculated into the lower left back of NOD/SCID female mice (6 weeks old). The mice were observed twice a week for palpable tumor formation and were sacrificed at 8 weeks after SP and MP tumor cells injection. The animals without tumors were followed up for four months to make sure that there was no possible tumor formation. Tumors were measured using vernier calipers and then photographed. Tumor tissues were harvested for pathology examination to confirm that they were the same kind of tumor.

2.7. Statistical analysis

Statistical software SPSS 15.0 was used in data processing and analyzing the significance between SP and MP cells with t-test or Fisher’s exact test. P values <0.05 were considered significant.

3. Results

3.1. Gastric cancer cell MKN-45 containing SP cells

We found that the gastric cancer cell line MKN-45 contained SP cells by using FACS. We set the gate according to the ability of cells to efflux the Hoechst 33342 and the sensitivity to verapamil. The left lower quadrant of the FACS profile is defined SP, which shows Hoechst blue and can be blocked by verapamil. The right higher quadrant of the FACS profile is defined MP, which shows Hoechst red and cannot be blocked by verapamil. We targeted these cells and differentiated them for further study. In the MKN-45, the percentage of SP was 2.0% of the total cells (Fig. (Fig.1a1a).

Fig. 1

Side population (SP) cell analysis

3.2. Cell growth curve and colony formation

The growth curves of SP and MP cells were plotted according to the MTT assay data. The two graph profiles showed that SP cell proliferation was slower than MP cell proliferation at the beginning of 3 d of culture but increased after 3 d (Fig. (Fig.2a2a).

Fig. 2

Cell growth curve and clone formation efficiency of SP cells from MKN-45

Colony formation assay was done and the colonies were cultured after 10–14 d; colony numbers were counted when cultures reached 50 cells or greater. We found that the CFEs of SP cells and MP cells in MKN-45 were (49.4±4.28)% and (15.84±4.25)%, respectively. This result showed that SP cells (Fig. (Fig.2b)2b) had a much higher ability to form colonies than MP cells (Fig. (Fig.2c).2c). Further statistical analysis using t-test showed that the CFEs of SP and MP cell populations were significantly different (P values were nearly 0) (Fig. (Fig.2d2d).

3.3. mRNA and protein expression profiles

We analyzed the mRNA expression of stemness-related genes, including ABCG2, OCT-4, NANOG, SOX-2, and CD44, using quantitative real-time RT-PCR. Results showed that all the five genes, especially ABCG2 and CD44 genes, showed higher levels of mRNA in SP cells than in MP cells (Fig. (Fig.3a).3a). We analyzed protein expression of stemness-related genes using Western blot, including ABCG2, OCT-4, NANOG, SOX-2, and CD44. Results showed that all the five proteins, especially ABCG2 and CD44 proteins showed higher levels in SP cells (Fig. (Fig.3b).3b). This was consistent with the results of the mRNA expression of stemness-related genes. This significant difference not only in the mRNA level but also in the protein level indicated that SP cells possessed stem cell phenotypic characteristics.

Fig. 3

Results of the mRNA and protein expressions

3.4. Tumorigenicity of SP and MP cells in NOD/SCID mice

We examined the tumorigenicity difference of SP and MP cells from MKN-45 in NOD/SCID mice. As shown in Table Table1,1, one out of three mice formed a tumor when injected with 1×103 SP cells, two out of three mice formed a tumor when injected with 5×103 SP cells, and all three mice formed a tumor when injected with 1×104 SP cells. However, when we injected the mice with 1×104 MP cells, none of them formed tumors. Tumors only developed when the mice were injected with 5×104 MP cells or 1×105 MP cells. In both cases one out of three mice formed a tumor. However, when injected with 5×105 MP cells, all three mice formed a tumor (Figs. 4a and 4b). All tumor specimens (Fig. (Fig.4c)4c) were tested for gastric cancer by pathology examination (Figs. 4d and 4e). The results suggest that SP cells have higher tumor formation ability than MP cells.

Table 1

MKN-45 cell numbers and tumor formation in NOD/SCID mice

Fig. 4

Xenograft of NOD/SCID mice

4. Discussion

The way to isolate and identify the CSCs is not uniform, although more and more research shows that CSCs exist in many kinds of solid tumors. Some investigators use cell surface markers to get the CSCs, such as CD44+/CD24−/low/Lin for breast cancer CSCs and CD44+/CD24+ for gastric CSCs (Al-Hajj et al., 2003; Zhang et al., 2011). Some developed tumor sphere in serum-free medium to obtain CSCs (Song et al., 2011; Yin et al., 2011). We selected FACS to obtain the cancer stem-like cells. In this study, we sorted SP cells from the gastric carcinoma cell line MKN-45. The percentage of SP was 2%, higher than previous reports (Hadnagy et al., 2006; Fukuda et al., 2009). In fact, the percentage of SP depended mainly on the different cell lineage (or tissue source), the concentration of Hoechst 33342 used, and the incubation time after Hoechst 33342 staining. The amount of SP cells was a secondary characteristic; however, the most important characteristic was that sorted SP cells possess the properties of stem cells, and have the potential to be the true CSCs.

CSCs are classically defined by the same properties (self-renewal and multi-potency) as normal stem cells (Hadnagy et al., 2006; Haraguchi et al., 2006; Morrison and Kimble, 2006). Another property of CSCs, which is different from normal stem cells, is the tumorigenicity in nude or NOD/SCID mice. Further study showed that SP cells grow faster than MP cells, especially 3 d after culturing. Moreover, the CFE of SP cells is higher than that of MP cells. These two results suggested that the SP cells possessed higher ability of self-renewal. Secondly, we analyzed not only the mRNA expression profiles of five stemness-related genes using quantitative RT-PCR, but also the related protein expression profiles using Western blot. Three important stemness-related genes, including OCT-4 (14.81-fold, P=0.003), SOX-2 (10.21-fold, P=0.020), and NANOG (11.37-fold, P=0.030), which were examined using quantitative real-time RT-PCR, expressed at a higher level in SP cells (Chambers et al., 2003; Boiani and Scholer, 2005). It is a known fact that OCT-4 together with NANOG and SOX-2, collaborates to form a regulatory network consisting of auto regulatory and feed forward loops that play a crucial role in maintaining pluripotency in human embryonic stem (ES) cells (Boyer et al., 2005; Shi et al., 2012). We may infer that SP cells contained CSCs according to the above results. ABCG2 (16.10-fold, P=0.013), acting as one of the adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-binding cassette drug transporters, was also expressed at a higher concentration in SP cells. The link between the SP phenotype and ABCG2 expression directly was shown in the bone-marrow cells of mice 10 years ago (Zhou et al., 2001). The results proved not only the link between the SP phenotype and ABCG2 expression in human cancer cells, but also the possibility that SP cells possessed the CSCs traits. Apart from the above findings, it was also seen that the cell marker CD44 (11.78-fold, P=0.002) was also expressed in SP cells. We inferred that CD44 was a gastric CSC molecular marker, which was investigated by other researchers (Takaishi et al., 2009; Leung et al., 2010). More significantly, the consistency between mRNA and protein expression profiles in five stemness-related genes may offer insights into SP cell stemness characteristics. Finally, we chose SP and MP cells from MKN-45 to inoculate into the subcutaneous tissue of the mice to observe the tumor formation. Tumor formation results showed that SP cells had a higher ability to induce tumors than MP cells. Fisher’s exact test (2-sided) was chosen to analyze the data; for sample numbers less than 40, P value was 0.044. Statistics further showed that SP cells had stronger ability to form tumor than MP cells.

5. Conclusions

The results of this study proved not only the self-renewal of CSCs through in vitro experiments, including the cell growth curve, the colony formation efficiency, mRNA and protein expressions of stemness-related genes, but also the tumor formation ability in vivo. SP cells in gastric cancer cells through FACS possessed the characteristics of CSCs. We also demonstrated that FACS was a useful way to isolate the CSCs from the tumor with unknown specific cell markers.


We thank Jun-ying JIA and Chun-chun LIU (Biophysics Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences) for the help in cell sorting.


*Project (Nos. 81000706/H1108 and 81172368) supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China


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