Cancer stem cells (CSCs) represent a subpopulation of tumour cells endowed with self-renewal and multi-lineage differentiation capacity but also with an innate resistance to cytotoxic agents, a feature likely to pose major clinical challenges towards the complete eradication of minimal residual disease in cancer patients. Operationally, CSCs are defined by their tumour-propagating ability when serially transplanted into immune-compromised mice and by their capacity to fully recapitulate the original heterogeneity of cell types observed in the primary lesions they are derived from.CSCs were first identified in haematopoietic malignancies and later in a broad spectrum of solid tumours including those of the breast, colon and brain. Notably, several CSC characteristics are relevant to metastasis, such as motility, invasiveness and, as mentioned above, resistance to DNA damage-induced apoptosis.Here, we have reviewed the current literature on the relation between CSCs and metastasis formation. Preliminary studies on cancer cell lines and patient-derived material suggest a rate-limiting role for stem-like cells in the processes of tumour cell dissemination and metastasis formation. However, additional studies are needed to deliver formal proof of their identity as the cell of origin of recurrences at distant organ sites. Nevertheless, several studies have already provided pre-clinical evidence of the efficacy of novel therapies directed against disseminated CSCs.

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Seminars in Cancer Biology
Department of Pathology