Many cancer patients suffer from metastatic relapse several years after they have undergone radical surgery. Early cancer cell dissemination followed by a protracted period of dormancy potentially explains this prevalent clinical behavior. Increasing evidence suggests that the metastasis-initiating cells are cancer stem cells or revert to this functional state upon infiltrating a target organ. Their entry into dormancy and subsequent reactivation are governed by intrinsic programs and by contextual cues, which resemble those regulating the self-renewal capability of adult stem cells. In addition, metastatic cells undergoing reactivation are nursed by specialized extracellular matrix niches, which support positive signals, such as Wnt and Notch, and attenuate negative signals, such as BMP. In spite of significant remaining uncertainties, these findings provide a framework to understand the logic of metastatic dormancy and reactivation and open new avenues for therapeutic intervention.
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