Brain tumor stem cells: Molecular characteristics and their impact on therapy

Mol Aspects Med. 2014 Oct;39:82-101. doi: 10.1016/j.mam.2013.06.004. Epub 2013 Jul 4.


Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most prevalent primary brain tumor and ranks among the most lethal of human cancers with conventional therapy offering only palliation. Great strides have been made in understanding brain cancer genetics and modeling these tumors with new targeted therapies being tested, but these advances have not translated into substantially improved patient outcomes. Multiple chemotherapeutic agents, including temozolomide, the first-line treatment for glioblastoma, have been developed to kill cancer cells. However, the response to temozolomide in GBM is modest. Radiation is also moderately effective but this approach is plagued by limitations due to collateral radiation damage to healthy brain tissue and development of radioresistance. Therapeutic resistance is attributed at least in part to a cell population within the tumor that possesses stem-like characteristics and tumor propagating capabilities, referred to as cancer stem cells. Within GBM, the intratumoral heterogeneity is derived from a combination of regional genetic variance and a cellular hierarchy often regulated by distinct cancer stem cell niches, most notably perivascular and hypoxic regions. With the recent emergence as a key player in tumor biology, cancer stem cells have symbiotic relationships with the tumor microenvironment, oncogenic signaling pathways, and epigenetic modifications. The origins of cancer stem cells and their contributions to brain tumor growth and therapeutic resistance are under active investigation with novel anti-cancer stem cell therapies offering potential new hope for this lethal disease.

Keywords: Epigenetics; Glioma stem cells; Hypoxia; Microenvironment; Therapeutic resistance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Brain Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Brain Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Glioblastoma / metabolism*
  • Glioblastoma / pathology
  • Glioblastoma / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / radiation effects
  • Radiation Tolerance
  • Signal Transduction