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Novartis Found Symp. 2005;265:35-50; discussion 50-4, 92-7.

Normal and neoplastic stem cells.

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Department of Pathology, Stanford University Medical Center, B257 Beckman Center, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


Stem cells are cells that at the single cell level both self-renew and give rise to differentiated progeny. Self renewal is the property that distinguishes stem cells and progenitors, and in the blood-forming system explains why haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), not progenitors, are the only cells capable of providing rapid and sustained regeneration of the blood-forming system after ablation by cancer chemo- and radiotherapies. Cancer-free prospectively purified HSCs regenerate the haematopoietic system of patients as rapidly as a marrow or mobilized blood transplant, but without the risk of re-seeding the body with cancer cells. Further, purified allogeneic HSCs can establish donor-specific tolerance to subsequent tissue grafts. However, in contrast to widely-publicized reports of HSC plasticity, we have not been able to show transdifferentiation of HSC to muscle, heart, brain or gut, and conclude that rare cell fusions and incomplete purifications are likely explanations for the other published results. The ability to self-renew is also potentially dangerous, as poorly regulated self renewal is, we believe, a central lesion in all cancers. We have recently shown that myeloid leukaemias in mouse and human are often driven by rare leukaemia (cancer) stem cells which are at the progenitor stage of differentiation, but have activated the self-renewing cell division pathway normally used only by HSCs. Similar cancer stem cells have been isolated in other tumours.

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