Cancer stem cells in hepatocellular carcinoma - from origin to clinical implications

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2022 Jan;19(1):26-44. doi: 10.1038/s41575-021-00508-3. Epub 2021 Sep 9.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is an aggressive disease with a poor clinical outcome. The cancer stem cell (CSC) model states that tumour growth is powered by a subset of tumour stem cells within cancers. This model explains several clinical observations in HCC (as well as in other cancers), including the almost inevitable recurrence of tumours after initial successful chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy, as well as the phenomena of tumour dormancy and treatment resistance. The past two decades have seen a marked increase in research on the identification and characterization of liver CSCs, which has encouraged the design of novel diagnostic and treatment strategies for HCC. These studies revealed novel aspects of liver CSCs, including their heterogeneity and unique immunobiology, which are suggestive of opportunities for new research directions and potential therapies. In this Review, we summarize the present knowledge of liver CSC markers and the regulators of stemness in HCC. We also comprehensively describe developments in the liver CSC field with emphasis on experiments utilizing single-cell transcriptomics to understand liver CSC heterogeneity, lineage-tracing and cell-ablation studies of liver CSCs, and the influence of the CSC niche and tumour microenvironment on liver cancer stemness, including interactions between CSCs and the immune system. We also discuss the potential application of liver CSC-based therapies for treatment of HCC.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / diagnosis*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Liver Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Liver Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells*


  • Biomarkers
  • Membrane Glycoproteins