Priority Research Papers:

Graphene oxide selectively targets cancer stem cells, across multiple tumor types: Implications for non-toxic cancer treatment, via “differentiation-based nano-therapy”

Marco Fiorillo, Andrea F. Verre, Maria Iliut, Maria Peiris-Pagés, Bela Ozsvari, Ricardo Gandara, Anna Rita Cappello, Federica Sotgia, Aravind Vijayaraghavan and Michael P. Lisanti _

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Oncotarget. 2015; 6:3553-3562. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.3348

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Marco Fiorillo1,2,3, Andrea F. Verre4, Maria Iliut4, Maria Peiris-Pagés1,2, Bela Ozsvari1,2, Ricardo Gandara1,2, Anna Rita Cappello3, Federica Sotgia1,2, Aravind Vijayaraghavan4 and Michael P. Lisanti1,2

1 The Manchester Centre for Cellular Metabolism (MCCM), Institute of Cancer Sciences, University of Manchester, UK

2 The Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit, Institute of Cancer Sciences, University of Manchester, UK

3 The Department of Pharmacy, Health and Nutritional Sciences, The University of Calabria, Italy

4 School of Materials and National Graphene Institute, University of Manchester, UK


Michael P. Lisanti, email:

Aravind Vijayaraghavan, email:

Keywords: nanomaterials, graphene oxide, cancer stem cells, multiple cancer types: breast, ovarian

Received: January 01, 2015 Accepted: February 12, 2015 Published: February 24, 2015


Tumor-initiating cells (TICs), a.k.a. cancer stem cells (CSCs), are difficult to eradicate with conventional approaches to cancer treatment, such as chemo-therapy and radiation. As a consequence, the survival of residual CSCs is thought to drive the onset of tumor recurrence, distant metastasis, and drug-resistance, which is a significant clinical problem for the effective treatment of cancer. Thus, novel approaches to cancer therapy are needed urgently, to address this clinical need. Towards this end, here we have investigated the therapeutic potential of graphene oxide to target cancer stem cells. Graphene and its derivatives are well-known, relatively inert and potentially non-toxic nano-materials that form stable dispersions in a variety of solvents. Here, we show that graphene oxide (of both big and small flake sizes) can be used to selectively inhibit the proliferative expansion of cancer stem cells, across multiple tumor types. For this purpose, we employed the tumor-sphere assay, which functionally measures the clonal expansion of single cancer stem cells under anchorage-independent conditions. More specifically, we show that graphene oxide effectively inhibits tumor-sphere formation in multiple cell lines, across 6 different cancer types, including breast, ovarian, prostate, lung and pancreatic cancers, as well as glioblastoma (brain). In striking contrast, graphene oxide is non-toxic for “bulk” cancer cells (non-stem) and normal fibroblasts. Mechanistically, we present evidence that GO exerts its striking effects on CSCs by inhibiting several key signal transduction pathways (WNT, Notch and STAT-signaling) and thereby inducing CSC differentiation. Thus, graphene oxide may be an effective non-toxic therapeutic strategy for the eradication of cancer stem cells, via differentiation-based nano-therapy.

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