Theranostics 2020; 10(14):6411-6429. doi:10.7150/thno.42602

Research Paper

Interplay between MycN and c-Myc regulates radioresistance and cancer stem cell phenotype in neuroblastoma upon glutamine deprivation

Marion Le Grand1,2,3,*, Anna Mukha4,5,*, Jakob Püschel4, Emanuele Valli1,3, Alvin Kamili1,3, Orazio Vittorio1,2,3,✉, Anna Dubrovska4,5,6,7,✉, Maria Kavallaris1,2,3,✉

1. Children's Cancer Institute, Lowy Cancer Research Centre, UNSW Sydney, NSW, Australia 2052
2. ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology, Australian Centre for Nanomedicine, UNSW Sydney, Australia 2052
3. School of Women's and Children's Health, Faculty of Medicine, UNSW Sydney, NSW, Australia 2052
4. OncoRay-National Center for Radiation Research in Oncology, Faculty of Medicine and University Hospital Carl Gustav Carus, Technische Universität Dresden, Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, Dresden, Germany
5. Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden - Rossendorf, Institute of Radiooncology - OncoRay, Dresden, Germany
6. German Cancer Consortium (DKTK), Partner site Dresden, Germany
7. German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany
* First author

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Le Grand M, Mukha A, Püschel J, Valli E, Kamili A, Vittorio O, Dubrovska A, Kavallaris M. Interplay between MycN and c-Myc regulates radioresistance and cancer stem cell phenotype in neuroblastoma upon glutamine deprivation. Theranostics 2020; 10(14):6411-6429. doi:10.7150/thno.42602. Available from

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Targeting glutamine metabolism has emerged as a potential therapeutic strategy for Myc overexpressing cancer cells. Myc proteins contribute to an aggressive neuroblastoma phenotype. Radiotherapy is one of the treatment modalities for high-risk neuroblastoma patients. Herein, we investigated the effect of glutamine deprivation in combination with irradiation in neuroblastoma cells representative of high-risk disease and studied the role of Myc member interplay in regulating neuroblastoma cell radioresistance.

Methods: Cell proliferation and viability assays were used to establish the effect of glutamine deprivation in neuroblastoma cells expressing c-Myc or MycN. Gene silencing and overexpression were used to modulate the expression of Myc genes to determine their role in neuroblastoma radioresistance. qPCR and western blot investigated interplay between expression of Myc members. The impact of glutamine deprivation on cell response following irradiation was explored using a radiobiological 3D colony assay. DNA repair gene pathways as well as CSC-related genes were studied by qPCR array. Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and glutathione (GSH) levels were detected by fluorescence and luminescence probes respectively. Cancer-stem cell (CSC) properties were investigated by sphere-forming assay and flow cytometry to quantify CSC markers. Expression of DNA repair genes and CSC-related genes was analysed by mining publicly available patient datasets.

Results: Our results showed that glutamine deprivation decreased neuroblastoma cell proliferation and viability and modulated Myc member expression. We then demonstrated for the first time that combined glutamine deprivation with irradiation led to a selective radioresistance of MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma cells. By exploring the underlying mechanism of neuroblastoma radioresistance properties, our results highlight interplay between c-Myc and MycN expression suggesting compensatory mechanisms in Myc proteins leading to radioresistance in MYCN-amplified cells. This result was associated with the ability of MYCN-amplified cells to dysregulate the DNA repair gene pathway, maintain GSH and ROS levels and to increase the CSC-like population and properties. Conversely, glutamine deprivation led to radiosensitization in non-MYCN amplified cell lines through a disruption of the cell redox balance and a trend to decrease in the CSC-like populations. Mining publicly available gene expression dataset obtained from pediatric neuroblastoma patients, we identified a correlation pattern between Myc members and CSC-related genes as well as a specific group of DNA repair gene pathways.

Conclusions: This study demonstrated that MycN and c-Myc tightly cooperate in regulation of the neuroblastoma CSC phenotypes and radioresistance upon glutamine deprivation. Pharmacologically, strategies targeting glutamine metabolism may prove beneficial in Myc-driven tumors. Consideration of MycN/c-Myc status in selecting neuroblastoma patients for glutamine metabolism treatment will be important to avoid potential radioresistance.

Keywords: Myc members, glutamine metabolism, neuroblastoma, radioresistance, cancer stem cells