Testicular germ cell tumors (GCTs) are very common in young men and can be stratified into seminomas and non-seminomas. While seminomas share a similar gene expression and epigenetic profile with primordial germ cells, the stem cell population of the non-seminomas, the embryonal carcinoma (EC), resembles malignant embryonic stem cells. Thus, ECs are able to differentiate into cells of all three germ layers (teratomas) and even extra-embryonic-tissue-like cells (yolk-sac tumor, choriocarcinoma). In the last years, we demonstrated that the cellular microenvironment considerably influences the plasticity of seminomas (TCam-2 cells). Upon a microenvironment-triggered inhibition of the BMP signaling pathway in vivo (murine flank or brain), seminomatous TCam-2 cells reprogram to an EC-like cell fate. We identified SOX2 as a key factor activated upon BMP inhibition mediating the reprogramming process by regulating pluripotency, reprogramming and epigenetic factors. Indeed, CRISPR/Cas9 SOX2-deleted TCam-2 cells were able to maintain a seminoma-cell fate in vivo for about six weeks, but after six weeks in vivo still small sub-populations initiated differentiation. Closer analyses of these differentiated clusters suggested that the pioneer factor FOXA2 might be the driving force behind this induction of differentiation, since many FOXA2 interacting genes and differentiation factors like AFP
were upregulated. In this study, we generated TCam-2 cells double-deficient for SOX2
using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique and xenografted those cells into the flank of nude mice. Upon loss of SOX2 and FOXA2, TCam-2 maintained a seminoma cell fate for at least twelve weeks, demonstrating that both factors are key players in the reprogramming to an EC-like cell fate. Therefore, our study adds an important piece to the puzzle of GCT development and plasticity, providing interesting insights in what can be expected in a patient, when GCT cells are confronted with different microenvironments.
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