CD44 and EpCAM: cancer-initiating cell markers

Curr Mol Med. 2008 Dec;8(8):784-804. doi: 10.2174/156652408786733667.


Embryonic stem cells are immortal, can self renew, and differentiate into all cells of the body. The adult organism maintains adult stem cells in regenerative organs that can differentiate into all cells of the respective organ. Virchow's hypothesis that cancer may arise from embryonic-like cells has received strong support, as it was demonstrated that tumors contain few cells, known as cancer stem or cancer-initiating cells (CIC), that account for primary and metastatic tumor growth. CIC are mostly defined by expression of CIC-markers that are associated and correlated with the potential of CIC to grow in xenogeneic mice. CIC marker profiles have been elaborated for many tumors, with several markers as CD24, CD44, CD133, CD166, EpCAM, and some integrins, being expressed by tumors of different histological type. Their function in promoting CIC maintenance and activity is largely unknown. The fate of stem cells, determined by their position, is minutely regulated by few adjacent cells creating a niche. CIC also require a niche, mostly for settlement and growth in distant organs. This so called pre-metastatic niche is initiated by the primary tumor before metastasizing cell arrival. How do CIC prepare the pre-metastatic niche? Cancer cells secrete a matrix that serves a cross-talk with surrounding tissues. Additionally, cancer cells can abundantly deliver exosomes, which function as long-distance intercellular communicators. Studies on a rat pancreatic adenocarcinoma support our hypothesis that tumor-derived matrix and exosomes are the main actors in forming the pre-metastatic niche with CIC markers being engaged in matrix preparation and/or exosome delivery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Adult Stem Cells / pathology
  • Animals
  • Antigens, Neoplasm / metabolism*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cell Adhesion Molecule
  • Exosomes / metabolism
  • Exosomes / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hyaluronan Receptors / metabolism*
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Signal Transduction


  • Antigens, Neoplasm
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CD44 protein, human
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • EPCAM protein, human
  • Epithelial Cell Adhesion Molecule
  • Hyaluronan Receptors
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Neoplasm Proteins