The epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and cancer stem cells: a coalition against cancer therapies

J Mammary Gland Biol Neoplasia. 2009 Mar;14(1):29-43. doi: 10.1007/s10911-009-9110-3. Epub 2009 Feb 26.


During cancer progression, some cells within the primary tumor may reactivate a latent embryonic program known as epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Through EMT, transformed epithelial cells can acquire the mesenchymal traits that seem to facilitate metastasis. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that EMT and mesenchymal-related gene expression are associated with aggressive breast cancer subtypes and poor clinical outcome in breast cancer patients. More recently, the EMT program was shown to endow normal and transformed mammary epithelial cells with stem cell properties, including the ability to self-renew and efficiently initiate tumors. This link between EMT and stem cells may have numerous implications in the progression of breast tumors. The EMT process may facilitate the generation of cancer cells with the mesenchymal traits needed for dissemination as well as the self-renewal properties needed for initiation of secondary tumors. Breast cancer stem cells are resistant to many conventional cancer therapies, which can promote tumor relapse. Therefore, the generation of cancer stem cells by EMT may promote the development of refractory and resistant breast tumors. The purpose of this review is to summarize the findings related to EMT and stem cells in cancer progression and therapy resistance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Disease Progression
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Mesoderm / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology*
  • Recurrence