Acquired chemoresistance is a critical issue for advanced bladder cancer patients during long-term treatment. Recent studies reveal that a fraction of tumor cells with enhanced tumor-initiating potential, or cancer stem-like cells (CSCs), may particularly contribute to acquired chemoresistance and recurrence. Thus, CSC characterization will be the first step towards understanding the mechanisms underlying advanced disease. Here we generated long-term patient-derived cancer cells (PDCs) from bladder cancer patient specimens in spheroid culture, which is favorable for CSC enrichment. Pathological features of bladder cancer PDCs and PDC-dependent patient-derived xenografts (PDXs) were basically similar to those of their corresponding patients’ specimens. Notably, CSC marker aldehyde dehydrogenase 1A1 (ALDH1A1), a critical enzyme that synthesizes retinoic acid (RA), was abundantly expressed in PDCs. ALDH1A1 inhibitors and shRNAs repressed both PDC proliferation and spheroid formation, whereas all-trans RA could rescue ALDH1A1 shRNA-suppressed spheroid formation. ALDH inhibitor also reduced the in vivo growth of PDC-derived xenografts. ALDH1A1 knockdown study showed that tubulin beta III (TUBB3) was one of the downregulated genes in PDCs. We identified functional RA response elements in TUBB3 promoter, whose transcriptional activities were substantially activated by RA. Clinical survival database reveals that TUBB3 expression may associate with poor prognosis in bladder cancer patients. Moreover, TUBB3 knockdown was sufficient to suppress PDC proliferation and spheroid formation. Taken together, our results indicate that ALDH1A1 and its putative downstream target TUBB3 are overexpressed in bladder cancer, and those molecules could be applied to alternative diagnostic and therapeutic options for advanced disease.
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