Lung Basal Stem Cells Rapidly Repair DNA Damage Using the Error-Prone Nonhomologous End-Joining Pathway

Clare E. Weeden, Yunshun Chen, Stephen B. Ma, Yifang Hu, Georg Ramm, Kate D Sutherland, Gordon K Smyth, Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat

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22 Citations (Scopus)


Lung squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC), the second most common subtype of lung cancer, is strongly associated with tobacco smoking and exhibits genomic instability. The cellular origins and molecular processes that contribute to SqCC formation are largely unexplored. Here we show that human basal stem cells (BSCs) isolated from heavy smokers proliferate extensively, whereas their alveolar progenitor cell counterparts have limited colony-forming capacity. We demonstrate that this difference arises in part because of the ability of BSCs to repair their DNA more efficiently than alveolar cells following ionizing radiation or chemical-induced DNA damage. Analysis of mice harbouring a mutation in the DNA-dependent protein kinase catalytic subunit (DNA-PKcs), a key enzyme in DNA damage repair by nonhomologous end joining (NHEJ), indicated that BSCs preferentially repair their DNA by this error-prone process. Interestingly, polyploidy, a phenomenon associated with genetically unstable cells, was only observed in the human BSC subset. Expression signature analysis indicated that BSCs are the likely cells of origin of human SqCC and that high levels of NHEJ genes in SqCC are correlated with increasing genomic instability. Hence, our results favour a model in which heavy smoking promotes proliferation of BSCs, and their predilection for error-prone NHEJ could lead to the high mutagenic burden that culminates in SqCC. Targeting DNA repair processes may therefore have a role in the prevention and therapy of SqCC.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2000731
Number of pages27
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jan 2017


  • DNA repair
  • squamous cell lung carcinoma
  • adenocarcinoma of the lung
  • lung and intrathoracic tumors
  • non-homologous end joining
  • DNA damage
  • secondary lung tumors
  • stem cells

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