Head and neck cancer stem cells

J Dent Res. 2012 Apr;91(4):334-40. doi: 10.1177/0022034511423393. Epub 2011 Sep 20.


Most cancers contain a small sub-population of cells that are endowed with self-renewal, multipotency, and a unique potential for tumor initiation. These properties are considered hallmarks of cancer stem cells. Here, we provide an overview of the field of cancer stem cells with a focus on head and neck cancers. Cancer stem cells are located in the invasive fronts of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC) close to blood vessels (perivascular niche). Endothelial cell-initiated signaling events are critical for the survival and self-renewal of these stem cells. Markers such as aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), CD133, and CD44 have been successfully used to identify highly tumorigenic cancer stem cells in HNSCC. This review briefly describes the orosphere assay, a method for in vitro culture of undifferentiated head and neck cancer stem cells under low attachment conditions. Notably, recent evidence suggests that cancer stem cells are exquisitely resistant to conventional therapy and are the "drivers" of local recurrence and metastatic spread. The emerging understanding of the role of cancer stem cells in the pathobiology of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas might have a profound impact on the treatment paradigms for this malignancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis
  • Blood Vessels / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / secondary
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / pathology
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / physiology*
  • Stem Cell Niche / physiology


  • Biomarkers, Tumor