Targeting cancer stem cell propagation with palbociclib, a CDK4/6 inhibitor: Telomerase drives tumor cell heterogeneity

Gloria Bonuccelli, Maria Peiris-Pages, Bela Ozsvari, Ubaldo E. Martinez-Outschoorn, Federica Sotgia, Michael P. Lisanti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this report, we systematically examined the role of telomerase activity in lung and ovarian cancer stem cell (CSC) propagation. For this purpose, we indirectly gauged telomerase activity, by linking the hTERT-promoter to eGFP. Using lung (A549) and ovarian (SKOV3) cancer cells, transduced with the hTERT-GFP reporter, we then employed GFP-expression levels to fractionate these cell lines into GFP-high and GFP-low populations. We functionally compared the phenotype of these GFP-high and GFP-low populations. More specifically, we now show that the cancer cells with higher telomerase activity (GFP-high) are more energetically activated, with increased mitochondrial mass and function, as well as increased glycolytic activity. This was further validated and confirmed by unbiased proteomics analysis. Cells with high telomerase activity also showed an increased capacity for stem cell activity (as measured using the 3D-spheroid assay) and cell migration (as measured using a Boyden chamber approach). These enhanced biological phenotypes were effectively inhibited by classical modulators of energy metabolism, which target either i) mitochondrial metabolism (i.e., oligomycin) or ii) glycolysis (i.e., 2-deoxy-glucose), or iii) by using the FDA-approved antibiotic doxycycline, which inhibits mitochondrial biogenesis. Finally, the level of telomerase activity also determined the ability of hTERT-high cells to proliferate, as assessed by measuring DNA synthesis via EdU incorporation. Consistent with these observations, treatment with an FDA-approved CDK4/6 inhibitor (PD-0332991/palbociclib) specifically blocked the propagation of both lung and ovarian CSCs. Virtually identical results were obtained with breast CSCs, which were also highly sensitive to palbociclib at concentrations in the nanomolar range. In summary, CSCs with high telomerase activity are among the most energetically activated, migratory and proliferative cell sub-populations. These observations may provide a mechanistic explanation for tumor metabolic heterogeneity, based on telomerase activity. FDA-approved drugs, such as doxycycline and palbociclib, were both effective at curtailing CSC propagation. Thus, these FDA-approved drugs could be used to target telomerase-high proliferative CSCs, in multiple cancer types. Finally, our experiments also allowed us to distinguish two different cellular populations of hTERT-high cells, one that was proliferative (i.e., replicative immortality) and the other that was non-proliferative (i.e., quiescent). We speculate that the non-proliferative population of hTERT-high cells that we identified could be mechanistically involved in tumor dormancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9868-9884
Number of pages17
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 25 Dec 2016


  • Cancer stem-like cells (CSCs)
  • Doxycycline
  • Mitochondria
  • Palbociclib
  • Telomerase
  • Tumor dormancy

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Cancer Research Centre


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