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Stem Cell Rev. 2010 Jun;6(2):307-16. doi: 10.1007/s12015-010-9143-4.

Epiblast/germ line hypothesis of cancer development revisited: lesson from the presence of Oct-4+ cells in adult tissues.

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  • 1Stem Cell Institute, James Graham Brown Cancer Center, University of Louisville, 500 S. Floyd Street, Louisville, KY 40202, USA.


The morphology of several tumors mimics developmentally early tissues; tumors often express early developmental markers characteristic for the germ line lineage. Recently, our group identified a population of very small stem cells (SCs) in murine bone marrow (BM) and other adult organs that express several markers characteristic for epiblast/germ line-derived SCs. We named these rare cells "Very Small Embryonic/Epiblast-like Stem Cells (VSELs)." We hypothesized that these cells that express both epiblast and germ line markers are deposited during early gastrulation in developing tissues and organs and play an important role in the turnover of tissue-committed (TC) SCs. To support this, we envision that the germ line is not only the origin of SCs, but also remains as a scaffold or back-up for the SC compartment in adult life. Furthermore, we noticed that VSELs are protected from uncontrolled proliferation and teratoma formation by a unique DNA methylation pattern in some developmentally crucial imprinted genes, which show hypomethylation or erasure of imprints in paternally methylated genes and hypermethylation of imprints in the maternally methylated. In pathological situations, however, we hypothesize that VSELs could be involved in the development of several malignancies. Therefore, potential involvement of VSELs in cancerogenesis could support century-old concepts of embryonic rest- or germ line-origin hypotheses of cancer development. However, we are aware that this working hypothesis requires further direct experimental confirmation.

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