Cancer stem cells are distinguished from normal adult stem cells by their stemness without tissue homeostasis control. Glycosphingolipids (GSLs), particularly globo-series GSLs, are important markers of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells, but little is known about whether or not ceramide glycosylation, which controls glycosphingolipid synthesis, plays a role in modulating stem cells. Here, we report that ceramide glycosylation catalyzed by glucosylceramide synthase, which is enhanced in breast cancer stem cells (BCSCs) but not in normal mammary epithelial stem cells, maintains tumorous pluripotency of BCSCs. Enhanced ceramide glycosylation and globotriosylceramide (Gb3) correlate well with the numbers of BCSCs in breast cancer cell lines. In BCSCs sorted with CD44(+)/ESA(+)/CD24(-) markers, Gb3 activates c-Src/?-catenin signaling and up-regulates the expression of FGF-2, CD44, and Oct-4 enriching tumorigenesis. Conversely, silencing glucosylceramide synthase expression disrupts Gb3 synthesis and selectively kills BCSCs through deactivation of c-Src/?-catenin signaling. These findings highlight the unexploited role of ceramide glycosylation in selectively maintaining the tumorous pluripotency of cancer stem cells. It speculates that disruption of ceramide glycosylation or globo-series GSL is a useful approach to specifically target BCSCs specifically.
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