Altered glycosylation is a key hallmark of tumor cells; still, the role of individual glycosyltransferases remains unclear. ST6Gal-I is a tumor-associated sialyltransferase which catalyzes the addition of a sialic acid sugar to substrate glycoproteins. Addition of the negatively-charged sialic acid by ST6Gal-I has been shown to alter receptor conformation, clustering, and surface retention, leading to changes in downstream signaling. In this study we assayed ST6Gal-I by immunohistochemistry and report the great majority of patient ovarian and pancreatic tumors express this enzyme. In contrast, the normal epithelium expresses minimal ST6Gal-I. Enzyme expression in ovarian cancers is enriched during metastasis and correlates with worse progression-free and overall survival. Recent evidence points to ST6Gal-I activity in stem/progenitor cells. In light of this, we investigated whether ST6Gal-I functionally promotes a cancer stem cell (CSC) phenotype, i.e. resistance to chemotherapy, survival as tumorspheroids, and ability to initiate tumors. We previously reported that ST6Gal-I activity confers resistance to cisplatin; we now show its activity additionally confers resistance to gemcitabine in pancreatic tumor cells. ST6Gal-I expressing cells are enriched in patient derived xenografts (PDX) treated with gemcitabine suggesting that these cells preferentially survive chemotherapy in vivo. In addition to chemoresistance, ST6Gal-I promotes the growth of pancreatic and ovarian cell lines in tumorspheroid culture. Moreover, ST6Gal-I expressing primary tumor cells isolated from ovarian cancer ascites or PDX tumors survive in tumorspheroid culture, whereas ST6Gal-I negative cells do not. Conversely, forced expression of ST6Gal-I protects tumor cells exposed to the ascites fluid milieu in vitro, while non-ST6Gal-I expressing cells succumb to this inflammatory environment. In a limiting dilution tumor initiating assay, ST6Gal-I expressing cells have a higher tumor incidence and form larger tumors compared to cells with ST6Gal-I knockdown. We next created a conditional mouse model with forced ST6Gal-I expression in the intestinal tract and used AOM-DSS chemically-induced carcinogenesis model to evaluate tumor formation. Compared with wildtype mice, ST6Gal-I knock-in mice have a greater tumor burden, evidenced by increased tumor number and area. As a novel mechanistic link beteween ST6Gal-I and the CSC phenotype, direct modulation of ST6Gal-I levels in tumor cells regulates the expression of stem-related transcription factors, Sox9 and Slug, implicated in tumor progression. The finding that a distinct glycosyltransferase governs the expression of key transcription factors highlights the tumor glycome as a driving factor in CSC behavior.

Citation Format: Matthew J. Schultz, Andrew T. Holdbrooks, Asmi Chakraborty, William E. Grizzle, Charles N. Landen, Donald J. Buchsbaum, Michael G. Conner, Rebecca C. Arend, Karina J. Yoon, Chris A. Klug, Daniel C. Bullard, Robert A. Kesterson, Patsy G. Oliver, Amber K. O’Connor, Bradley K. Yoder, Susan L. Bellis. The tumor associated sialyltransferase ST6Gal-I promotes a cancer stem cell phenotype and upregulates stem-related transcription factors. [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research; 2016 Apr 16-20; New Orleans, LA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2016;76(14 Suppl):Abstract nr 3327.