Coupling the modules of EMT and stemness: A tunable ‘stemness window’ model
Metastasis of carcinoma involves migration of tumor cells to distant organs and initiate secondary tumors. Migration requires a complete or partial Epithelial-to-Mesenchymal Transition (EMT), and tumor-initiation requires cells possessing stemness. Epithelial cells (E) undergoing a complete EMT to become mesenchymal (M) have been suggested to be more likely to possess stemness. However, recent studies suggest that stemness can also be associated with cells undergoing a partial EMT (hybrid E/M phenotype). Therefore, the correlation between EMT and stemness remains elusive. Here, using a theoretical framework that couples the core EMT and stemness modules (miR-200/ZEB and LIN28/let-7), we demonstrate that the positioning of 'stemness window' on the 'EMT axis' need not be universal; rather it can be fine-tuned. Particularly, we present OVOL as an example of a modulating factor that, due to its coupling with miR-200/ZEB/LIN28/let-7 circuit, fine-tunes the EMT-stemness interplay. Coupling OVOL can inhibit the stemness likelihood of M and elevate that of the hybrid E/M (partial EMT) phenotype, thereby pulling the 'stemness window' away from the M end of 'EMT axis'. Our results unify various apparently contradictory experimental findings regarding the interconnection between EMT and stemness, corroborate the emerging notion that partial EMT associates with stemness, and offer new testable predictions.
OVOL; cancer stem cells; multistability; partial EMT; stemness window