Cancer cells within a given tumor were long regarded as a largely homogeneous group of cells originating from a common progenitor cell. However, it is increasingly appreciated that there is a considerable heterogeneity within tumors also on the tumor cell level. This heterogeneity extends to virtually all measurable properties of cancer cells, ranging from differentiation state, proliferation rate, migratory and invasive capacity to size, and therapeutic response. Such heterogeneity likely represents a major therapeutic hurdle, but the mechanisms underlying its emergence remain poorly understood and a controversial topic. The cancer stem cell model of tumor progression has gained increasing support during the past several years. In this review, I will discuss some major implications of the cancer stem cell hypothesis on the origins of tumor heterogeneity, focusing both on heterogeneity within the tumor cells proper and on potential transdifferentiation of cancer stem cells into stromal and endothelial lineages, as well as on heterogeneity of the therapeutic response. Evidence for and against a direct and causal role of cancer stem cells in the emergence of tumor heterogeneity will be weighed and alternative explanations for apparently contradictory observations discussed. Finally, I will discuss the potential origins of cancer stem cells and the various implications of origin to the contribution to tumor heterogeneity, and outline some future directions.
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