Cancer stem cells: Role in tumor growth, recurrence, metastasis, and treatment resistance

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Abstract

Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are a class of pluripotent cells that have been observed in most types of solid and hematologic cancers. CSCs have been shown in numerous cancer models to be involved in tumor development, cell proliferation, and metastatic dissemination, while possessing a capacity for sustained self-renewal. CSCs, which typically represent a small proportion of total cells of a given tumor, also exhibit resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Indeed, exposure to these treatments may promote “stemness” in nonstem cancer cells, which may explain why successful therapeutic reduction of tumor bulk will often fail to produce clinical improvement. Acquisition of stemness involves epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), in which epithelial cells are transformed into a mesenchymal phenotype characterized by increased capacities for migration, invasiveness, and resistance to apoptosis. EMT may also contribute to metastasis by driving dissemination of mesenchymal CSCs to distant locations, whereupon the CSCs revert to an epithelial phenotype to support metastatic tumor growth. Several different approaches to treatment aimed at overcoming the intrinsic resistance of CSCs to conventional therapies are currently being developed. These include agents targeting tumorigenic pathways, such as JAK2/STAT3 and PI3K/mTOR, and immunotherapies, including vaccines and natural killer cells employed to induce a T cell response.

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