Many lines of evidence have indicated that both genetic and non-genetic determinants can contribute to intra-tumor heterogeneity and influence cancer outcomes. Among the best described sub-population of cancer cells generated by non-genetic mechanisms are cells characterized by a CD44+/CD24- cell surface marker profile. Here, we report that human CD44+/CD24- cancer cells are genetically highly unstable because of intrinsic defects in their DNA-repair capabilities. In fact, in CD44+/CD24- cells, constitutive activation of the TGF-beta axis was both necessary and sufficient to reduce the expression of genes that are crucial in coordinating DNA damage repair mechanisms. Consequently, we observed that cancer cells that reside in a CD44+/CD24- state are characterized by increased accumulation of DNA copy number alterations, greater genetic diversity and improved adaptability to drug treatment. Together, these data suggest that the transition into a CD44+/CD24- cell state can promote intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity, spur tumor evolution and increase tumor fitness.
We molecularly dissected leptomeningeal metastasis, or spread of cancer to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is a frequent and fatal condition mediated by unknown mechanisms. We selected lung and breast cancer cell lines for the ability to infiltrate and grow in CSF, a remarkably acellular, mitogen-poor metastasis microenvironment. Complement component 3 (C3) was upregulated in four leptomeningeal metastatic models and proved necessary for cancer growth within the leptomeningeal space. In human disease, cancer cells within the CSF produced C3 in correlation with clinical course. C3 expression in primary tumors was predictive of leptomeningeal relapse. Mechanistically, we found that cancer-cell-derived C3 activates the C3a receptor in the choroid plexus epithelium to disrupt the blood-CSF barrier. This effect allows plasma components, including amphiregulin, and other mitogens to enter the CSF and promote cancer cell growth. Pharmacologic interference with C3 signaling proved therapeutically beneficial in suppressing leptomeningeal metastasis in these preclinical models.