The Hedgehog (Hh) signaling pathway is critical for embryonic development. In adult tissues, Hh signaling is relatively quiescent with the exception of roles in tissue maintenance and repair. Aberrant activation of Hh signaling is implicated in multiple aspects of transformation, including the maintenance of the cancer stem cell (CSC) phenotype. Preclinical studies indicate that CSCs from many tumor types are sensitive to Hh pathway inhibition and that Hh-targeted therapeutics block many aspects of transformation attributed to CSCs, including drug resistance, relapse, and metastasis. However, to date, Hh inhibitors, specifically those targeting Smoothened [such as vismodegib, BMS-833923, saridegib (IPI-926), sonidegib/erismodegib (LDE225), PF-04449913, LY2940680, LEQ 506, and TAK-441], have demonstrated good efficacy as monotherapy in patients with basal cell carcinoma and medulloblastoma, but have shown limited activity in other tumor types. This lack of success is likely due to many factors, including a lack of patient stratification in early trials, cross-talk between Hh and other oncogenic signaling pathways that can modulate therapeutic response, and a limited knowledge of Hh pathway activation mechanisms in CSCs from most tumor types. Here, we discuss Hh signaling mechanisms in the context of human cancer, particularly in the maintenance of the CSC phenotype, and consider new therapeutic strategies that hold the potential to expand considerably the scope and therapeutic efficacy of Hh-directed anticancer therapy.
©2015 American Association for Cancer Research.