Malignant melanoma is a lethal skin cancer containing melanoma-initiating cells (MIC), implicated in tumorigenesis, invasion, and drug resistance, and characterized by elevated expression of stem cell markers, such as CD133. We previously showed that siRNA knockdown of CD133 enhances apoptosis induced by the MEK inhibitor trametinib in melanoma cells. The current study investigates underlying mechanisms of CD133’s anti-apoptotic activity in patient-derived BAKP and POT cells, harboring difficult-to-treat NRASQ61K and NRASQ61R drivers, after CRISPR-Cas9 CD133 knockdown or Dox-inducible expression of CD133. To maintain stable expression of CD133, MACS-sorted CD133(+) positive cells were expanded by ROCK-mediated conditional reprogramming of BAKP melanoma cells (BAKR). BAKR showed increased survival via reduced apoptosis after exposure to trametinib or DTIC, compared to BAKP. CRISPR-Cas9- mediated CD133 knockdown in BAKR cells (BAKR-T3) re-sensitized the cells, while CRISPR-Cas9 knockdown of CD133 in parental BAKP and POT cells even further increased trametinib-induced apoptosis (cleaved PARP) by reducing levels of anti-apoptotic BCL-xL, p-AKT, and p-BAD, and increasing pro-apoptotic BAD and active BAX. Dox-induced CD133 overexpression had the opposite effect, and blocked trametinib-induced apoptosis in both cell lines, coincident with elevated p-AKT, p-BAD, BCL-2 and BCL-xL and decreased levels of the active form of BAX and caspases-3 and -9. The roles of CD133 in AKT and BAD phosphorylation, or in the upregulation of anti-apoptotic BCL-2 family members, was further investigated by AKT knockout with siRNA, or inhibition of BCL-2 family members with navitoclax (ABT-263). Similar to CD133 knockdown, AKT1/2 siRNA knockdown in BAKP cells also reduced p-BAD. CD133 knockdown (T3)-mediated reduction of pBAD levels was equivalent in AKT-knockdown or AKT control cells indicating that CD133 may be upstream of AKT signaling. In BAKP cells treated with trametinib and/or ABT-263, effects of ABT-263 mirrored CD133 knockdown, since levels of active BAX and cleaved-PARP in BAKP-SC (CD133-) cells increased to the same level as that exhibited by BAKP-T3 cells (CD133+). CD133 may therefore activate a survival pathway where 1) increased phosphorylation of AKT induces 2) phosphorylation and inactivation of BAD, 3) decrease in the active form of BAX, and 4) reduction in caspase-mediated PARP cleavage, indicating apoptosis suppression leading to drug resistance in melanomas. Targeting survival pathways by which CD133 may confer chemoresistance in MICs can contribute to development of more effective treatments for patients with high-risk melanoma.
melanoma initiating cells; CD133; drug resistance; apoptosis; caspase activation; CRISPR-Cas9 knockout; AKT; BAD; BCL-2 family
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