Background and Aims
Increasing evidence that a number of malignancies are characterised by tumour cell heterogeneity has recently been published, but there is still a lack of data concerning liver cancers. The aim of this study was to investigate and characterise tumour-propagating cell (TPC) compartments within human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).
After long-term culture, we identified three morphologically different tumour cell populations in a single HCC specimen, and extensively characterised them by means of flow cytometry, fluorescence microscopy, karyotyping and microarray analyses, single cell cloning, and xenotransplantation in NOD/SCID/IL2Rγ−/− mice.
The primary cell populations (hcc-1, -2 and -3) and two clones generated by means of limiting dilutions from hcc-1 (clone-1/7 and -1/8) differently expressed a number of tumour-associated stem cell markers, including EpCAM, CD49f, CD44, CD133, CD56, Thy-1, ALDH and CK19, and also showed different doubling times, drug resistance and tumorigenic potential. Moreover, we found that ALDH expression, in combination with CD44 or Thy-1 negativity or CD56 positivity identified subpopulations with a higher clonogenic potential within hcc-1, hcc-2 and hcc-3 primary cell populations, respectively. Karyotyping revealed the clonal evolution of the cell populations and clones within the primary tumour. Importantly, the primary tumour cell population with the greatest tumorigenic potential and drug resistance showed more chromosomal alterations than the others and contained clones with epithelial and mesenchymal features.
Individual HCCs can harbor different self-renewing tumorigenic cell types expressing a variety of morphological and phenotypical markers, karyotypic evolution and different gene expression profiles. This suggests that the models of hepatic carcinogenesis should take into account TPC heterogeneity due to intratumour clonal evolution.