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Cancer stem cells in solid tumors: elusive or illusive?

Yvonne Welte1, James Adjaye1, Hans R Lehrach1 and Christian RA Regenbrecht12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Vertebrate Genomics, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Ihnestrasse 63-73, 14195 Berlin, Germany

2 Laboratory for Molecular Tumorpathology and Comprehensive Cancer Center Charité, Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany

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Cell Communication and Signaling 2010, 8:6  doi:10.1186/1478-811X-8-6

Published: 11 May 2010


During the past years in vivo transplantation experiments and in vitro colony-forming assays indicated that tumors arise only from rare cells. These cells were shown to bear self-renewal capacities and the ability to recapitulate all cell types within an individual tumor. Due to their phenotypic resemblance to normal stem cells, the term "cancer stem cells" is used. However, some pieces of the puzzle are missing: (a) a stringent definition of cancer stem cells in solid tumors (b) specific markers that only target cells that meet the criteria for a cancer stem cell in a certain type of tumor. These missing parts started an ongoing debate about which is the best method to identify and characterize cancer stem cells, or even if their mere existence is just an artifact caused by the experimental procedures. Recent findings query the cancer stem cell hypothesis for solid tumors itself since it was shown in xenograft transplantation experiments that under appropriate conditions tumor-initiating cells are not rare.

In this review we critically discuss the challenges and prospects of the currently used major methods to identify cancer stem cells. Further on, we reflect the present discussion about the existence of cancer stem cells in solid tumors as well as the amount and characteristics of tumor-initiating cells and finally provide new perspectives like the correlation of cancer stem cells and induced pluripotent cells.