Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is one of the most aggressive lung tumors, with poor survival rates. Although patients may initially respond to treatment, this is followed by rapid development of drug resistance and disease progression. SCLC patients often present with metastasis at time of diagnosis, ruling out surgery as a treatment option. Currently, treatment options for this disease remain limited and platinum-based chemotherapy is the treatment of choice. A better understanding of the biology of SCLC could allow us to identify new therapeutic targets. Cancer stem cell (CSC) theory is currently crucial in cancer research and could provide a viable explanation for the heterogeneity, drug resistance, recurrence and metastasis of several types of tumors. Some characteristics of SCLC, such as aggressiveness, suggest that this kind of tumor could be enriched in CSCs, and drug resistance in SCLC could be attributable to the existence of a CSC subpopulation in SCLC. Herein we summarize current understanding of CSC in SCLC, including the evidence for CSC markers and signaling pathways involved in stemness. We also discuss potential ongoing strategies and areas of active research in SCLC, such as immunotherapy, that focus on inhibition of signaling pathways and targeting molecules driving stemness. Understanding of signaling pathways and the discovery of new therapeutic markers specific to CSCs will lead to new advances in therapy and improvements in prognosis of SCLC patients. Therefore, evaluation of these CSC-specific molecules and pathways may become a routine part of SCLC diagnosis and therapy.
Keywords: Cancer stem cell (CSC); chemoresistance; small cell lung cancer (SCLC).