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Environ Health Perspect. 1993 Dec; 101(Suppl 5): 15–26.
PMCID: PMC1519468
Research Article

Cellular origin of cancer: dedifferentiation or stem cell maturation arrest?


Given the fundamental principle that cancer must arise from a cell that has the potential to divide, two major nonexclusive hypotheses of the cellular origin of cancer are that malignancy arises a) from stem cells due to maturation arrest or b) from dedifferentiation of mature cells that retain the ability to proliferate. The role of stem cells in carcinogenesis is clearly demonstrated in teratocarcinomas. The malignant stem cells of teratocarcinomas are derived from normal multipotent stem cells and have the potential to differentiate into normal benign mature tissue. A widely studied model supporting dedifferentiation has been the putative origin of hepatocarcinomas from "premalignant" foci and nodules induced in the rat liver by chemicals. However, the dedifferentiation concept for hepatocarcinogenesis is challenged by more recent interpretations indicating that hepatocellular carcinoma arises from maturation arrest caused by aberrant differentiation of determined stem cells. Either hypothesis is supported by the cellular changes that occur in the rodent liver after different hepatocarcinogenic regimens. The formation of foci and nodules from altered hepatocytes supports dedifferentiation; the proliferation of small oval cells with the potential to differentiate into either biliary ducts or hepatocytes supports arrested maturation of determined stem cells. It is now postulated that foci and nodular change reflect adaptive changes to the toxic effects of carcinogens and not "preneoplastic" stages to cancer. The stem cell model predicts that genotoxic chemicals induce mutations in the determined stem cell which may be expressed in its progeny. Proliferation of initiated cells is induced by promoting events which also allow additional mutations to occur.

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