Cancer stem cells either could be rare or common in tumors, constituting the major distinction between the two fundamentally opposed theoretical models of tumor progression: A newer and restrictive stem cell propagation model, in which the stem cells are a small and special minority of the tumor cells, and a standard older model, an unrestricted cell proliferation theory, in which many or most tumor cells are capable of indefinite generations of cell division. Stem cells of tumors are difficult to quantitate using functional assays, and the validity of the most common assays is seriously questioned. Nonetheless, stem cells are an essential component of any tumorigenesis model. Alternative approaches to studying tumor stem cells should be explored. Cell populations can be conceived of as having a genealogy, a relationship of cells to their ancestral lineage, from the zygote to the adult cells or neoplasms. Models using ancestral trees thus offer an anatomic and genetic means to "observe" stem cells independent of artificial conditions. Ancestral trees broaden our attention backward along a lineage, to the zygote stage, and thereby add insight into how the mutations of tumors accumulate. It is possible that a large fraction of mutations in a tumor originate from normal, endogenous, replication errors (nearly all being passenger mutations) occurring prior to the emergence of the first transformed cell. Trees can be constructed from experimental measurements - molecular clocks - of real human tissues and tumors. Detailed analysis of single-cell methylation patterns, heritable yet slightly plastic, now can provide this information in the necessary depth. Trees based on observations of molecular clocks may help us to distinguish between competing theories regarding the proliferative properties among cells of actual human tumors, to observe subtle and difficult phenomena such as the extinction of stem lineages, and to address the origins and rates of mutations in various normal, hormone-stimulated, aging, or neoplastic tissues. The simple concept that cancers arise from the transformation of a normal stem cell, the stem cell origination theory, is sometimes superficially and confusingly referred to as "the stem cell theory". This concept is compatible with but not a requisite assumption for both of the major competing theories of tumor progression, and plays essentially no role in clarifying the nature of tumor progression.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research