Emerging functional markers for cancer stem cell-based therapies: Understanding signaling networks for targeting metastasis

Semin Cancer Biol. 2018 Dec:53:90-109. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2018.06.006. Epub 2018 Jun 30.


Metastasis is one of the most challenging issues in cancer patient management, and effective therapies to specifically target disease progression are missing, emphasizing the urgent need for developing novel anti-metastatic therapeutics. Cancer stem cells (CSCs) gained fast attention as a minor population of highly malignant cells within liquid and solid tumors that are responsible for tumor onset, self-renewal, resistance to radio- and chemotherapies, and evasion of immune surveillance accelerating recurrence and metastasis. Recent progress in the identification of their phenotypic and molecular characteristics and interactions with the tumor microenvironment provides great potential for the development of CSC-based targeted therapies and radical improvement in metastasis prevention and cancer patient prognosis. Here, we report on newly uncovered signaling mechanisms controlling CSC's aggressiveness and treatment resistance, and CSC-specific agents and molecular therapeutics, some of which are currently under investigation in clinical trials, gearing towards decisive functional CSC intrinsic or surface markers. One special research focus rests upon subverted regulatory pathways such as insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor signaling and its interactors in metastasis-initiating cell populations directly related to the gain of stem cell- and EMT-associated properties, as well as key components of the E2F transcription factor network regulating metastatic progression, microenvironmental changes, and chemoresistance. In addition, the study provides insight into systems biology tools to establish complex molecular relationships behind the emergence of aggressive phenotypes from high-throughput data that rely on network-based analysis and their use to investigate immune escape mechanisms or predict clinical outcome-relevant CSC receptor signaling signatures. We further propose that customized vector technologies could drastically enhance systemic drug delivery to target sites, and summarize recent progress and remaining challenges. This review integrates available knowledge on CSC biology, computational modeling approaches, molecular targeting strategies, and delivery techniques to envision future clinical therapies designed to conquer metastasis-initiating cells.

Keywords: Cancer stem cell targeting; Clinical therapies; Mathematical modeling; Molecular signaling; Network analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Tumor Microenvironment / drug effects


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Biomarkers, Tumor