Canonical and non-canonical WNT signaling in cancer stem cells and their niches: Cellular heterogeneity, omics reprogramming, targeted therapy and tumor plasticity (Review)

Int J Oncol. 2017 Nov;51(5):1357-1369. doi: 10.3892/ijo.2017.4129. Epub 2017 Sep 19.


Cancer stem cells (CSCs), which have the potential for self-renewal, differentiation and de-differentiation, undergo epigenetic, epithelial-mesenchymal, immunological and metabolic reprogramming to adapt to the tumor microenvironment and survive host defense or therapeutic insults. Intra-tumor heterogeneity and cancer-cell plasticity give rise to therapeutic resistance and recurrence through clonal replacement and reactivation of dormant CSCs, respectively. WNT signaling cascades cross-talk with the FGF, Notch, Hedgehog and TGFβ/BMP signaling cascades and regulate expression of functional CSC markers, such as CD44, CD133 (PROM1), EPCAM and LGR5 (GPR49). Aberrant canonical and non-canonical WNT signaling in human malignancies, including breast, colorectal, gastric, lung, ovary, pancreatic, prostate and uterine cancers, leukemia and melanoma, are involved in CSC survival, bulk-tumor expansion and invasion/metastasis. WNT signaling-targeted therapeutics, such as anti-FZD1/2/5/7/8 monoclonal antibody (mAb) (vantictumab), anti-LGR5 antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) (mAb-mc-vc-PAB-MMAE), anti-PTK7 ADC (PF-06647020), anti-ROR1 mAb (cirmtuzumab), anti-RSPO3 mAb (rosmantuzumab), small-molecule porcupine inhibitors (ETC-159, WNT-C59 and WNT974), tankyrase inhibitors (AZ1366, G007-LK, NVP-TNKS656 and XAV939) and β-catenin inhibitors (BC2059, CWP232228, ICG-001 and PRI-724), are in clinical trials or preclinical studies for the treatment of patients with WNT-driven cancers. WNT signaling-targeted therapeutics are applicable for combination therapy with BCR-ABL, EGFR, FLT3, KIT or RET inhibitors to treat a subset of tyrosine kinase-driven cancers because WNT and tyrosine kinase signaling cascades converge to β-catenin for the maintenance and expansion of CSCs. WNT signaling-targeted therapeutics might also be applicable for combination therapy with immune checkpoint blockers, such as atezolizumab, avelumab, durvalumab, ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab, to treat cancers with immune evasion, although the context-dependent effects of WNT signaling on immunity should be carefully assessed. Omics monitoring, such as genome sequencing and transcriptome tests, immunohistochemical analyses on PD-L1 (CD274), PD-1 (PDCD1), ROR1 and nuclear β-catenin and organoid-based drug screening, is necessary to determine the appropriate WNT signaling-targeted therapeutics for cancer patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cellular Reprogramming / genetics
  • Genetic Heterogeneity*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells*
  • Stem Cell Niche / genetics
  • Wnt Proteins / genetics
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway / genetics*


  • Wnt Proteins