Cancer Stem Cells: Basic Concepts and Therapeutic Implications

Annu Rev Pathol. 2016 May 23;11:47-76. doi: 10.1146/annurev-pathol-012615-044438.


Different mechanisms contribute to intratumor heterogeneity, including genetic mutations, the microenvironment, and the existence of subpopulations of cancer cells with increased renewal capacity and the ability to recapitulate the heterogeneity found in primary tumors, which are referred to as cancer stem cells (CSCs). In this review, we discuss how the concept of CSCs has been defined, what assays are currently used to define the functional properties of CSCs, what intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms regulate CSC functions, how plastic CSCs are, and the importance of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in conferring CSC properties. Finally, we discuss the mechanisms by which CSCs may resist medical therapy and contribute to tumor relapse.

Keywords: cancer; cancer stem cells; epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition; resistance to therapy; tumor heterogeneity; tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Tumor Microenvironment / drug effects*


  • Antineoplastic Agents