How Chemo and Radiation create resistant and aggressive cancer cells

Drug-induced Senescence Generates Chemoresistant Stemlike Cells with Low Reactive Oxygen Species*

  1. Santhi Achuthan  et al 


Tumor recurrence after chemotherapy or radiation remains a major obstacle to successful cancer treatment. A subset of cancer cells, termed cancer stem cells, can elude conventional treatments and eventually regenerate a tumor that is more aggressive. Despite the large number of studies, molecular events that govern the emergence of aggressive therapy-resistant cells with stem cell properties after chemotherapy are poorly defined.

The present study provides evidence for the rare escape of tumor cells from drug-induced cell death, after an intermediate stay in a non-cycling senescent stage followed by unstable multiplication characterized by spontaneous cell death. However, some cells appear to escape and generate stable colonies with an aggressive tumor stem cell-like phenotype. These cells displayed higher CD133 and Oct-4 expression.

Notably, the drug-selected cells that contained low levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) also showed an increase in antioxidant enzymes. Consistent with this in vitroexperimental data, we observed lower levels of ROS in breast tumors obtained after neoadjuvant chemotherapy compared with samples that did not receive preoperative chemotherapy. These latter tissues also expressed enhanced levels of ROS defenses with enhanced expression of superoxide dismutase. Higher levels of Oct-4 and CD133 were also observed in tumors obtained after neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Further studies provided evidence for the stabilization of Nrf2 due to reduced 26 S proteasome activity and increased p21 association as the driving signaling event that contributes to the transition from a high ROS quiescent state to a low ROS proliferating stage in drug-induced tumor stem cell enrichment.


  • Revision received August 26, 2011.

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