There is increasing evidence that a variety of neoplasms including breast cancer may result from transformation of normal stem and progenitor cells. In the past, isolation and characterization of mammary stem cells has been limited by the lack of suitable culture systems able to maintain these cells in an undifferentiated state in vitro. We have recently described a culture system in which human mammary stem and progenitor cells are able to survive in suspension and produce spherical colonies composed of both stem and progenitor cells. Recent observation that adult stem cells from other tissues may also retain the capacity for growth under anchorage independent conditions suggests a common underlying mechanism. We propose that this mechanism involves the interaction between the canonical Wnt signal pathway and E-cadherin. The Wnt pathway has been implicated in normal stem cell self-renewal in vivo. Furthermore, there is evidence that deregulation of this pathway in the mammary gland and other organs may play a key role in carcinogenesis. Thus, the development of in vitro suspension culture systems not only provides an important new tool for the study of mammary cell biology, but also may have important implications for understanding key molecular pathways in both normal and neoplastic stem cells.