A subpopulation of tumor-initiating cells (TIC) drives colorectal cancer (CRC) progression in serial xenotransplantation. Strikingly, the CRC TIC compartment itself is heterogeneous and comprised of a hierarchy of long-term (LT-) TIC, tumor transient amplifying cells (T-TAC) and delayed contributing (DC-) TIC. Whether this functionally heterogeneous TIC compartment is genetically homogenous or whether distinct genetic subclones drive the functional heterogeneity of the TIC compartment is yet unknown. To address this question, we performed high coverage (91-126 fold) whole genome sequencing on primary CRC patient tumors (n = 3), corresponding serially passaged TIC enriched spheroids as well as spheroid derived serial xenografts. Sequenced samples harbored between 22.800 and 232.000 synonymous or non-synonymous single nucleotide variants (SNVs). In addition, all samples contained multiple focal or large-scale somatic copy number alterations (CNAs). Clustering of SNVs as well as subclonal copy numbers from serial xenografts and spheroids were used to define SNV- and CNA-based subpopulations. Next, cellular fractions of identified subpopulations were determined and combined applying maximal parsimony to create models of the minimal number of subclones present in each sample. Using this strategy, we found that multiple subclones were present in each sample analyzed. Subclone heterogeneity was maintained during serial in vitro passaging and serial xenografting. Importantly, tumor initiation in xenografts was driven by at least 3 distinct genetic subclones whose relative contribution dynamically changed over time. Strikingly, in serial samples from the same patients, different genetic subclones grew out in vivo and in vitro.

To test whether functional heterogeneity of the TIC compartment is related to the presence of genetic subclones, we assessed the contribution of different TIC subtypes - LT-TIC, T-TAC and DC-TIC - at early and late time points of xenografting using secondary genetic marking. Therefore, 1×10⁁5 cells derived from early and late generation xenografts were transduced with an integrating lentiviral vector, thereby generating a stable barcode-like genetic mark which differs in each transduced cell. Following serial transplantation of transduced cells for 3 mouse generations, tumors were harvested and lentiviral integration sites were determined using highly sensitive LAM-PCR and high-throughput sequencing. Assessing the relative contribution of LT-TIC, T-TAC and DC-TIC revealed that the functional heterogeneity of the TIC compartment was preserved despite profound genetic subclone dynamics in serial xenotransplantation. These results strongly indicate that multiple genetic subclones drive long-term tumor formation and that functional heterogeneity of the CRC TIC compartment is not based on specific genetic subclones.

Citation Format: Klara M. Giessler, Kortine Kleinheinz, Gnana Prakash Balasubramanian, Daniel Hübschmann, Taronish D. Dubash Rai, Sebastian D. Dieter, Christine Siegl, Christopher M. Hoffmann, Sarah Weber, Raffaele Fronza, Saira Afzal, Manfred Schmidt, Martin Schneider, Alexis Ulrich, Juergen Weitz, Wilko Weichert, Matthias Schlesner, Benedikt Brors, Claudia R. Ball, Hanno Glimm. Genetic subclone heterogeneity of the human colon cancer initiating cell compartment. [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 910.