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Am J Pathol. 2004 Apr;164(4):1337-46.

Pretumor progression: clonal evolution of human stem cell populations.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90033, USA.


Multistep carcinogenesis through sequential cycles of mutation and clonal succession is usually described as tumor progression, or the clonal evolution of tumor cell populations. However, many mutations found in cancers are also compatible with normal appearing phenotypes and therefore genetic progression may precede tumor progression. To better characterize such pretumor progression (mutations in the absence of visible phenotypic changes), a quantitative model was developed that postulates most oncogenic cancer mutations first accumulate in normal appearing colon crypt niche stem cells. Each crypt contains multiple stem cells, and random niche stem cell loss with replacement eventually leads to the loss of all stem cell lineages except one. This niche succession or crypt clonal evolution is similar to the clonal succession of tumor progression except it does not require selection or change visible phenotype. Mutations may sequentially accumulate during stem cell clonal evolution either through drift (passenger mutations) or selection. To determine the feasibility of pretumor progression, mutation rates sufficient to recreate the epidemiology of colorectal cancer were estimated. Pretumor progression may completely substitute for visible tumor progression because it is theoretically possible for all cancer mutations to first accumulate in normal appearing colon with normal replication fidelity. Elevated mutation rates or tumorigenesis may be unnecessary for early progression.

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