Cancer stem cells are a chemotherapy-resistant population capable of self-renewal and of regenerating the bulk tumor, thereby causing relapse and patient death. Ewing's sarcoma, the second most common form of bone tumor in adolescents and young adults, follows a clinical pattern consistent with the Cancer Stem Cell model – remission is easily achieved, even for patients with metastatic disease, but relapse remains frequent and is usually fatal.
We have isolated a subpopulation of Ewing's sarcoma cells, from both human cell lines and human xenografts grown in immune deficient mice, which express high aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH high) activity and are enriched for clonogenicity, sphere-formation, and tumor initiation. The ALDH high cells are resistant to chemotherapy in vitro, but this can be overcome by the ATP binding cassette transport protein inhibitor, verapamil. Importantly, these cells are not resistant to YK-4-279, a small molecule inhibitor of EWS-FLI1 that is selectively toxic to Ewing's sarcoma cells both in vitro and in vivo.
Ewing's sarcoma contains an ALDH high stem-like population of chemotherapy-resistant cells that retain sensitivity to EWS-FLI1 inhibition. Inhibiting the EWS-FLI1 oncoprotein may prove to be an effective means of improving patient outcomes by targeting Ewing's sarcoma stem cells that survive standard chemotherapy.