Background: Colon cancer stem cells are shown to be the self-renewing cells within a tumor that give rise to all lineages of more differentiated tumor cells. In this respect they are remarkably similar to their non-malignant counterparts that orchestrate the intestinal lining. This suggests that, despite the numerous genetic aberrations and morphological changes that have occurred during cancer initiation and progression, a remnant homeostatic regulation persists.
Findings: Using a number of human and mouse intestinal-derived organoid cultures from normal, adenoma and cancerous tissues, we show here that Notch signals coordinate self-renewal and lineage determination not only in normal, but also at the adenoma and carcinoma stage in both mice and humans. Moreover, the Wnt pathway, which carries activating mutations in virtually all colon cancers, is not as previously predicted constitutively active in adenomas and carcinomas, but still displays a heterogeneous activity pattern that determined stemness in all stages of disease.
Conclusion: These data for the first time provide a comprehensive overview of Wnt and Notch-mediated signaling in the different stages of the adenoma-carcinoma sequence and demonstrates that these morphogenic pathways, despite mutations, remain crucial determinants of both architecture and hierarchy in normal and malignant intestinal tissue.