A frequent complication in colorectal cancer (CRC) is regeneration of the tumor after therapy. Here, we report that a gene signature specific for adult intestinal stem cells (ISCs) predicts disease relapse in CRC patients. ISCs are marked by high expression of the EphB2 receptor, which becomes gradually silenced as cells differentiate. Using EphB2 and the ISC marker Lgr5, we have FACS-purified and profiled mouse ISCs, crypt proliferative progenitors, and late transient amplifying cells to define a gene program specific for normal ISCs. Furthermore, we discovered that ISC-specific genes identify a stem-like cell population positioned at the bottom of tumor structures reminiscent of crypts. EphB2 sorted ISC-like tumor cells display robust tumor-initiating capacity in immunodeficient mice as well as long-term self-renewal potential. Taken together, our data suggest that the ISC program defines a cancer stem cell niche within colorectal tumors and plays a central role in CRC relapse.
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