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Epithelial-mesenchymal transition and cancer stem cells: a dangerously dynamic duo in breast cancer progression

Caitlin D May12, Nathalie Sphyris1, Kurt W Evans1, Steven J Werden1, Wenjun Guo3 and Sendurai A Mani1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Molecular Pathology, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX 77054, USA

2 The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, Houston, TX 77030, USA

3 Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, 9 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA

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Breast Cancer Research 2011, 13:202  doi:10.1186/bcr2789

Published: 8 February 2011


Aberrant activation of a latent embryonic program - known as the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) - can endow cancer cells with the migratory and invasive capabilities associated with metastatic competence. The induction of EMT entails the loss of epithelial characteristics and the de novo acquisition of a mesenchymal phenotype. In breast cancer, the EMT state has been associated with cancer stem cell properties including expression of the stem cell-associated CD44+/CD24-/low antigenic profile, self-renewal capabilities and resistance to conventional therapies. Intriguingly, EMT features are also associated with stem cells isolated from the normal mouse mammary gland and human breast reduction tissues as well as the highly aggressive metaplastic and claudin-low breast tumor subtypes. This has implications for the origin of these breast tumors as it remains unclear whether they derive from cells that have undergone EMT or whether they represent an expansion of a pre-existing stem cell population that expresses EMT-associated markers to begin with. In the present review, we consider the current evidence connecting EMT and stem cell attributes and discuss the ramifications of these newly recognized links for our understanding of the emergence of distinct breast cancer subtypes and breast cancer progression.