Breast cancers, mammary stem cells, and cancer stem cells, characteristics, and hypotheses

Neoplasia. 2020 Dec;22(12):663-678. doi: 10.1016/j.neo.2020.09.009. Epub 2020 Oct 23.


The cellular heterogeneity of breast cancers still represents a major therapeutic challenge. The latest genomic studies have classified breast cancers in distinct clusters to inform the therapeutic approaches and predict clinical outcomes. The mammary epithelium is composed of luminal and basal cells, and this seemingly hierarchical organization is dependent on various stem cells and progenitors populating the mammary gland. Some cancer cells are conceptually similar to the stem cells as they can self-renew and generate bulk populations of nontumorigenic cells. Two models have been proposed to explain the cell of origin of breast cancer and involve either the reprogramming of differentiated mammary cells or the dysregulation of mammary stem cells or progenitors. Both hypotheses are not exclusive and imply the accumulation of independent mutational events. Cancer stem cells have been isolated from breast tumors and implicated in the development, metastasis, and recurrence of breast cancers. Recent advances in single-cell sequencing help deciphering the clonal evolution within each breast tumor. Still, few clinical trials have been focused on these specific cancer cell populations.

Keywords: ALDH; CD24; CD44; Cancer stem cell; Mammary stem cell.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Mammary Glands, Human / cytology*
  • Mammary Glands, Human / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Stem Cells / metabolism*