Roles of the Polycomb group proteins in stem cells and cancer

Cell Death Dis. 2011 Sep 1;2(9):e204. doi: 10.1038/cddis.2011.84.


Polycomb group proteins have long been linked to the occurrence of different forms of cancer. Polycomb proteins form at least two distinct complexes, the Polycomb-repressive complexes 1 and 2 (PRC1 and PRC2). Some of the PRC complex subunits have been found to be overexpressed in a variety of different tumors. Epigenetic perturbations are likely to be the cause for transcriptional misregulation of tumor suppressor genes and of certain cell fates. It is especially critical for stem cells that their potential to self-renewal and to differentiate is tightly controlled and properly orchestrated. Misregulation of Polycomb protein levels often leads to either a block or unscheduled activation of developmental pathways, thereby enhancing the proliferation capability of a cell. The consequences of this misregulation have been linked to the establishment of cancer stem cells, which can produce tumors through a combination of increased self-renewal and the lack of complete cellular differentiation. Cancer stem cells are believed to persist within tumors and to elicit relapse and metastasis. In this review, we recapitulate the roles of Polycomb proteins in stem cell biology, and the impact their misregulation can have on cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromosomal Proteins, Non-Histone / metabolism
  • Drosophila
  • Drosophila Proteins / metabolism
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Polycomb-Group Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism*


  • Chromosomal Proteins, Non-Histone
  • Drosophila Proteins
  • Polycomb-Group Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins
  • trx protein, Drosophila