p53 is well recognized as a potent tumor suppressor. In its classic role, p53 responds to genotoxic insults by inducing cell cycle exit or programmed cell death to limit the propagation of cells with corrupted genomes. p53 is also implicated in a variety of other cellular processes in which its involvement is less well understood including self-renewal, differentiation, and reprogramming. These activities represent an emerging area of intense interest for cancer biologists, as they provide potential mechanistic links between p53 loss and the stem cell-like cellular plasticity that has been suggested to contribute to tumor cell heterogeneity and to drive tumor progression. Despite accumulating evidence linking p53 loss to stem-like phenotypes in cancer, it is not yet understood how p53 contributes to acquisition of "stemness" at the molecular level. Whether and how stem-like cells confer survival advantages to propagate the tumor also remain to be resolved. Furthermore, although it seems reasonable that the combination of p53 deficiency and the stem-like state could contribute to the genesis of cancers that are refractory to treatment, direct linkages and mechanistic underpinnings remain under investigation. Here, we discuss recent findings supporting the connection between p53 loss and the emergence of tumor cells bearing functional and molecular similarities to stem cells. We address several potential molecular and cellular mechanisms that may contribute to this link, and we discuss implications of these findings for the way we think about cancer progression.
Keywords: cancer; dedifferentiation; p53; plasticity; reprogramming; stem cell.