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J Cell Mol Med. 2008 Apr;12(2):374-90. doi: 10.1111/j.1582-4934.2007.00211.x. Epub 2007 Dec 20.

Cancer stem cells: implications for the progression and treatment of metastatic disease.

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London Regional Cancer Program, London Health Sciences Centre, London, Ontario, Canada.


Metastasis is the major cause of death for cancer patients with solid tumours, due mainly to the ineffectiveness of current therapies once metastases begin to form. Further insight into the biology of metastasis is therefore essential in order to gain a greater understanding of this process and ultimately to develop better cancer therapies. Metastasis is an inefficient process, such that very few cells that leave a tumour successfully form macrometastases in distant sites. This suggests that only a small subset of cells can successfully navigate the metastatic cascade and eventually re-initiate tumour growth to form life-threatening metastases. Recently, there has been growing support for the cancer stem cell (CSC) hypothesis which stipulates that primary tumours are initiated and maintained by a small subpopulation of cancer cells that possess "stem-like" characteristics. Classical properties of normal stem cells are strikingly reminiscent of the observed experimental and clinical behaviour of metastatic cancer cells, including an unlimited capacity for self renewal; the requirement for a specific 'niche' or microenvironment to grow; use of the stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF-1)/chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4) axis for migration; enhanced resistance to apoptosis and an increased capacity for drug resistance. Therefore, in addition to playing a role in primary tumour formation, we believe that CSCs are also key players in the metastatic process. We will review the current evidence supporting this idea and discuss the potential implications of the CSC hypothesis with regards to experimental investigation and treatment of metastatic disease.

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