Tumor cell network integration in glioma represents a stemness feature

Background: Malignant gliomas including glioblastomas are characterized by a striking cellular heterogeneity, which includes a subpopulation of glioma cells that becomes highly resistant by integration into tumor microtube (TM)-connected multicellular networks.

Methods: A novel functional approach to detect, isolate and characterize glioma cell subpopulations with respect to in vivo network integration is established, combining a dye staining method with intravital two-photon microscopy, FACS sorting, molecular profiling, and gene reporter studies.

Results: Glioblastoma cells that are part of the TM-connected tumor network show activated neurodevelopmental and glioma progression gene expression pathways. Importantly, many of them revealed profiles indicative of increased cellular stemness, including high expression of nestin. TM-connected glioblastoma cells also had a higher potential for re-initiation of brain tumor growth. Long-term tracking of tumor cell nestin expression in vivo revealed a stronger TM network integration and higher radioresistance of the nestin-high subpopulation. Glioblastoma cells that were both nestin-high and network-integrated were particularly able to adapt to radiotherapy with increased TM formation.

Conclusion: Multiple stem-like features are strongly enriched in a fraction of network-integrated glioma cells, explaining their particular resilience.

Keywords: Glioblastoma; cancer stem cells; glioma; networks; tumor microtubes.