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Cell Res. 2012 Mar;22(3):457-72. doi: 10.1038/cr.2012.13. Epub 2012 Jan 17.

Understanding cancer stem cell heterogeneity and plasticity.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Carcinogenesis, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Science Park, 1808 Park Rd. 1C, Smithville, TX 78957, USA.


Heterogeneity is an omnipresent feature of mammalian cells in vitro and in vivo. It has been recently realized that even mouse and human embryonic stem cells under the best culture conditions are heterogeneous containing pluripotent as well as partially committed cells. Somatic stem cells in adult organs are also heterogeneous, containing many subpopulations of self-renewing cells with distinct regenerative capacity. The differentiated progeny of adult stem cells also retain significant developmental plasticity that can be induced by a wide variety of experimental approaches. Like normal stem cells, recent data suggest that cancer stem cells (CSCs) similarly display significant phenotypic and functional heterogeneity, and that the CSC progeny can manifest diverse plasticity. Here, I discuss CSC heterogeneity and plasticity in the context of tumor development and progression, and by comparing with normal stem cell development. Appreciation of cancer cell plasticity entails a revision to the earlier concept that only the tumorigenic subset in the tumor needs to be targeted. By understanding the interrelationship between CSCs and their differentiated progeny, we can hope to develop better therapeutic regimens that can prevent the emergence of tumor cell variants that are able to found a new tumor and distant metastases.

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