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Open Access Hypothesis

Cancer: a “stem-cell” disease?

Shi-Ming Tu

Author Affiliations

Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology, Unit 1374, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, 1155 Pressler Street, Houston, TX 77030-3721, USA

Cancer Cell International 2013, 13:40  doi:10.1186/1475-2867-13-40

Published: 6 May 2013



Nowadays, we believe that cancer is a genetic disease. We focus on the genetic targets and epigenetic changes in a tumor. Remarkably, many crucial signal pathways in a malignant cell involve “stem-ness” genes. The prevalence of stem-ness in cancer suggests that cancer has a stem-cell origin and is a stem-cell disease.

Presentation of the hypothesis

The observation that many innate stem-ness properties are easily interchangeable with malignant hallmarks needs to be further elucidated. There appears to be a malignant potential in every stem cell and a stem cell potential in every malignant cell. I hypothesize that cancer is a stem-cell disease rather than a genetic disease.

Testing the hypothesis

We will use homeobox genes to endow a certain progenitor cell with specific stem-ness properties and confer different stem-cell phenotypes to the particular cell type in a hierarchical manner. We will demonstrate that an earlier homeobox gene plus a genetic defect (such as Pten loss) tend to form a more virulent tumor, while a later homeobox gene plus the same genetic defect tend to express a more indolent phenotype. Importantly, we will show that in clinically relevant cancer subtypes, those with worse clinical outcomes may paradoxically harbor fewer genetic mutations than those with better outcomes do.

Implications of the hypothesis

The recognition that cancer is a stem-cell disease will instigate major paradigm shifts in our basic understanding of cancer. Many fundamental principles of oncology, such as multistep carcinogenesis, need to be reconciled. The realization that cancer is a stem-cell disease will also have profound clinical implications on personalized care. Many aspects of our current clinical trials need to be reevaluated.

Cancer stem cells; Stem-ness; Microenvironment; Personalized care; Paradigm shift