Stem cells of the breast and cancer therapy

Womens Health (Lond). 2010 Mar;6(2):205-19. doi: 10.2217/whe.10.5.


Breast cancer remains a significant public health problem despite advances in the understanding of the molecular and cellular events that underlie the disease. Crucial pathways regulating the cell cycle, proliferation and survival of breast cancer cells have been investigated and aberrant components of these pathways have been exploited as new drug targets. However, the mortality from breast cancer is only slowly declining. Recently, a model has been proposed that might explain the heterogeneous biological features of breast cancer cell populations and their differential response to therapeutic agents, which has interesting implications for further progress in therapy. This model links the emergence of breast cancer cells to stem cells and progenitors, an observation originally made in other cancer entities. It hypothesizes that the tumors originate from a small population of undifferentiated cells. These cells can undergo self-renewal and are able to generate a large number of partially differentiated cells, which constitute the bulk of the tumor. These cancer stem cells resemble adult stem and progenitor cells found in the normal breast, but are deregulated in their patterns of proliferation and differentiation. They could originate from normal stem cells or from more differentiated progenitors and lose their normal growth restraints through a series of oncogenic mutations that deregulate a small number of central signaling pathways. If breast cancer really is a stem and progenitor cell disease, this will have important implications for the understanding of the emergence of cancer cells. A combination of the cell-type of origin, stem cells, early or late progenitors and the particular oncogenic mutations acquired could provide a new classification of the different types of breast cancer. These parameters might determine the mechanisms of cancer progression and the responsiveness of patients to drug treatment. Stem cell-specific features could possibly be exploited as innovative drug targets.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • BRCA1 Protein / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / classification
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / classification
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism*
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / classification*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Women's Health


  • BRCA1 Protein