Cancer stem cells, hypoxia and metastasis

Semin Radiat Oncol. 2009 Apr;19(2):106-11. doi: 10.1016/j.semradonc.2008.12.002.


The successful growth of a metastasis, by definition, requires the presence of at least 1 cancer stem cell. Metastasis is a complex process, and an important contributor to this process is the influence of the tissue microenvironment, both cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions and the pathophysiologic conditions in tumors, such as hypoxia. A number of studies have suggested that normal stem cells may reside in "niches," where cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions can provide critical signals to support and maintain the undifferentiated phenotype of the stem cells. In this article, the evidence that these niches may be hypoxic is described, and the potential role that hypoxia may play in maintaining the stem cell phenotype in cancers is discussed. Recent work has suggested that there may be a linkage between the stem cell phenotype and that induced by the process of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). EMT plays an important role in cell movement and organ formation during embryogenesis, and it is currently hypothesized to be a major mechanism by which epithelial cancers may generate cells that can form metastases. Recent evidence suggests that the expression of certain genes involved in EMT is influenced by low oxygen levels, again suggesting a linkage between stem cells and hypoxia. Whether this supposition is correct remains an open question that will only be answered by further experimentation, but the potential role of hypoxia is critical because of its widespread existence in tumors and its known role in resistance to both radiation and drug treatment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / pathology*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology*