Cancer Stem Cells and Epithelial-to-Mesenchymal Transition (EMT)-Phenotypic Cells: Are They Cousins or Twins?

Cancers (Basel). 2011 Feb 21;3(1):716-29. doi: 10.3390/cancers30100716.


Cancer stem cells (CSCs) are cells within a tumor that possess the capacity to self-renew and maintain tumor-initiating capacity through differentiation into the heterogeneous lineages of cancer cells that comprise the whole tumor. These tumor-initiating cells could provide a resource for cells that cause tumor recurrence after therapy. Although the cell origin of CSCs remains to be fully elucidated, mounting evidence has demonstrated that Epithelial-to-Mesenchymal Transition (EMT), induced by different factors, is associated with tumor aggressiveness and metastasis and these cells share molecular characteristics with CSCs, and thus are often called cancer stem-like cells or tumor-initiating cells. The acquisition of an EMT phenotype is a critical process for switching early stage carcinomas into invasive malignancies, which is often associated with the loss of epithelial differentiation and gain of mesenchymal phenotype. Recent studies have demonstrated that EMT plays a critical role not only in tumor metastasis but also in tumor recurrence and that it is tightly linked with the biology of cancer stem-like cells or cancer-initiating cells. Here we will succinctly summarize the state-of-our-knowledge regarding the molecular similarities between cancer stem-like cells or CSCs and EMT-phenotypic cells that are associated with tumor aggressiveness focusing on solid tumors.