Cancer stem cells (CSCs), a small population of cancer cells, have been considered to be the origin of cancer initiation, recurrence, and metastasis. Tumor microenvironment provides crucial signals for CSCs to maintain stem cell properties and promotes tumorigenesis. Therefore, establishment of an appropriate cell culture system to mimic the microenvironment for CSC studies is an important issue. In this study, we grew colon and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells on chitosan membranes and evaluated the tumor progression and the CSC properties. Experimental results showed that culturing cancer cells on chitosan increased cell motility, drug resistance, quiescent population, self-renewal capacity, and the expression levels of stemness and CSC marker genes, such as OCT4, NANOG, CD133, CD44, and EpCAM. Furthermore, we demonstrated that chitosan might activate canonical Wnt/β-catenin-CD44 axis signaling in CD44 positive colon cancer cells and noncanonical Wnt-STAT3 signaling in CD44 negative HCC cells. In conclusion, chitosan as culture substrates activated the essential signaling of CSCs and promoted CSC properties. The chitosan culture system provides a convenient platform for the research of CSC biology and screening of anticancer drugs.
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