Microenvironmentally-driven plasticity of CD44 isoform expression determines engraftment and stem-like phenotype in CRC cell lines

Thiemo F. Dinger, Oleg Chen, Claudia Dittfeld, Lydia Hetze, Melanie Hüther, Marit Wondrak, Steffen Löck, Wolfgang Eicheler, Georg Breier, Leoni A. Kunz-Schughart*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Theranostic biomarkers for putative cancer stem-like cells (CSC) in colorectal cancer (CRC) are of particular interest in translational research to develop patient-individualized treatment strategies. Surface proteins still under debate are CD44 and CD133. The structural and functional diversity of these antigens, as well as their plasticity, has only just begun to be understood. Our study aimed to gain novel insight into the plasticity of CD133/CD44, thereby proving the hypothesis of marker-associated tumorigenic and non-tumorigenic phenotypes to be environmentally driven. Methods: CD133/CD44 profiles of 20 CRC cell lines were monitored; three models with distinct surface patterns in vitro were systematically examined. CD133/CD44 subpopulations were isolated by FACS and analyzed upon in vitro growth and/or in limiting dilution engraftment studies. The experimental setup included biomarker analyses on the protein (flow cytometry, Western blotting, immunofluorescence) and mRNA levels (RT-/qPCR) as well as CD44 gene sequencing. Results: In general, we found that (i) the in vitro CD133/CD44 pattern never determined engraftment and (ii) the CD133/CD44 population distributions harmonized under in vivo conditions. The LS1034 cell line appeared as a unique model due to its de novo in vivo presentation of CD44. CD44v8-10 was identified as main transcript, which was stronger expressed in primary human CRC than in normal colon tissues. Biomarker pattern of LS1034 cells in vivo reflected secondary engraftment: the tumorigenic potential was highest in CD133+/CD44+, intermediate in CD133+/CD44 and entirely lost in CD133/CD44 subfractions. Both CD44+ and CD44 LS1034 cells gave rise to tumorigenic and non-tumorigenic progeny and were convertible - but only as long as they expressed CD133 in vivo. The highly tumorigenic CD133+/CD44(v8-10)+ LS1034 cells were localized in well-oxygenated perivascular but not hypoxic regions. From a multitude of putative modulators, only the direct interaction with stromal fibroblasts triggered an essential, in vivo-like enhancement of CD44v8-10 presentation in vitro. Conclusion: Environmental conditions modulate CD133/CD44 phenotypes and tumorigenic potential of CRC subpopulations. The identification of fibroblasts as drivers of cancer-specific CD44 expression profile and plasticity sheds light on the limitation of per se dynamic surface antigens as biomarkers. It can also explain the location of putative CD133/CD44-positive CRC CSC in the perivascular niche, which is likely to comprise cancer-associated fibroblasts. The LS1034 in vitro/in vivo model is a valuable tool to unravel the mechanism of stromal-induced CD44v8-10 expression and identify further therapeutically relevant, mutual interrelations between microenvironment and tumorigenic phenotype.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7599-7621
Number of pages23
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • CD44/CD44v8-10
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Fibroblasts
  • Limiting dilution engraftment
  • Microenvironment


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