Tumor Cells Positive and Negative for the Common Cancer Stem Cell Markers Are Capable of Initiating Tumor Growth and Generating Both Progenies

The cancer stem cell (CSC) model depicts that tumors are hierarchically organized and maintained by CSCs lying at the apex. CSCs have been “identified” in a variety of tumors through the tumor-forming assay, in which tumor cells distinguished by a certain cell surface marker (known as a CSC marker) were separately transplanted into immunodeficient mice. In such assays, tumor cells positive but not negative for the CSC marker (hereby defined as CSC+ and CSC cells, respectively) have the ability of tumor-forming and generating both progenies. However, here we show that CSC+ and CSC cells exhibit similar proliferation in the native states. Using a cell tracing method, we demonstrate that CSC cells exhibit similar tumorigenesis and proliferation as CSC+ cells when they were co-transplanted into immunodeficient mice. Through serial single-cell derived subline construction, we further demonstrated that CSC+ and CSC cells from CSC marker expressing tumors could invariably generate both progenies, and their characteristics are maintained among different generations irrespective of the origins (CSC+-derived or CSC-derived). These findings demonstrate that tumorigenic cells cannot be distinguished by common CSC markers alone and we propose that cautions should be taken when using these markers independently to identify cancer stem cells due to the phenotypic plasticity of tumor cells.