Research Papers:

Heparan sulfate hexasaccharide selectively inhibits cancer stem cells self-renewal by activating p38 MAP kinase

Nirmita J. Patel, Chetna Sharon, Somesh Baranwal, Rio S. Boothello, Umesh R. Desai and Bhaumik B. Patel _

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Oncotarget. 2016; 7:84608-84622. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.12358

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Nirmita J. Patel1,3, Chetna Sharon1, Somesh Baranwal1,2, Rio S. Boothello1,2, Umesh R. Desai3, Bhaumik B. Patel1,2

1Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, Richmond, VA 23249, USA

2Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Palliative Care, Department of Internal Medicine and Massey Cancer Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23298, USA

3Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Institute for Structural Biology, Drug Discovery and Development, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23219, USA

Correspondence to:

Bhaumik B. Patel, email: [email protected]

Keywords: cancer stem cells, colorectal cancer, glycosaminoglycans, p38 mitogen activated protein kinase, heparan sulfate

Received: June 17, 2016    Accepted: September 05, 2016    Published: September 30, 2016


Heparan sulfate (HS) plays a role in the majority of essential hallmarks of cancer, yet its ability to modulate self-renewal, especially of cancer stem cells (CSCs), remains unknown. We have discovered that a non-anticoagulant HS hexasaccharide (HS06) sequence, but not other shorter or longer sequences, selectively inhibited CSC self-renewal and induced apoptosis in colorectal, pancreatic, and breast CSCs suggesting a very general phenomenon. HS06 inhibition of CSCs relied upon early and sustained activation of p38α/β mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) but not other MAPKs family members i.e. ERK and JNK. In contrast, polymeric HS induced exactly opposite changes in MAPK activation and failed to inhibit CSCs. In fact, TCF4 signaling, a critical regulator of CSC self-renewal, was inhibited by HS06 in a p38 activation dependent fashion. In conclusion, HS06 selectively inhibits CSCs self-renewal by causing isoform specific activation of p38MAPK to inhibit TCF4 signaling. These observations on chain length-induced specificity carry major mechanistic implications with regard to HS in cancer biology, while also presenting a novel paradigm for developing novel anti-CSC hexasaccharides that prevent cancer relapse.


Heparan sulfate (HS) of specific length, i.e., hexasaccharide (HS06), but not longer or shorter sequences, selectively inhibit cancer stem cells (CSCs) through isoform specific activation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase. These findings will have major implication for developing chemical probes to decipher complex signaling events that govern cancer stem cells. Additionally, there are direct implications for designing glycosaminoglycan based cancer therapies to selectively target CSCs that escape killing by traditional chemotherapy threatening cancer relapse.

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