Epithelial cells undergoing epithelial-to-mesenchymal transitions have often been shown to behave as cancer stem cells, but the precise molecular connection remains elusive. At the genetic level, stemness is governed by LIN28/let-7 double inhibition switch, whereas EMT/MET is controlled by miR-200/ZEB double inhibition circuit and LIN28 is inhibited by miR-200, coupling the two modules. Here, using a specially devised theoretical framework to investigate the dynamics of the LIN28/let-7 system, we show that it can operate as a three-way switch (between low, high and intermediate LIN28 levels termed the D, U and hybrid D/U states) similar to the three-way operation of the miR-200/ZEB circuit that allows for the existence of a hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal (E/M) phenotype. We find significant correspondence between the existence of the three states of the two circuits: E–D, M–U and E/M–D/U. Incorporating the activation of OCT4 by LIN28, we find that the hybrid E/M phenotype has high likelihood (when compared with either the E or M states) to gain stemness. Combining the LIN28/let-7 regulation by NF-κB and c-MYC, we find that NF-κB, but not c-MYC, elevates the likelihood of E/M phenotype to gain stemness. Our results are consistent with emerging concept that partial EMT can lead to stemness.
- Received August 27, 2014.
- Accepted October 1, 2014.
- © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.