Breast cancer stem cells: A review of their characteristics and the agents that affect them

Naing L. Shan, Yoosub Shin, Ge Yang, Philip Furmanski, Nanjoo Suh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The evolving concept that cancer stem cells (CSCs) are the driving element in cancer development, evolution and heterogeneity, has overridden the previous model of a tumor consisting of cells all with similar sequentially acquired mutations and a similar potential for renewal, invasion and metastasis. This paradigm shift has focused attention on therapeutically targeting CSCs directly as a means of eradicating the disease. In breast cancers, CSCs can be identified by cell surface markers and are characterized by their ability to self-renew and differentiate, resist chemotherapy and radiation, and initiate new tumors upon serial transplantation in xenografted mice. These functional properties of CSCs are regulated by both intracellular and extracellular factors including pluripotency-related transcription factors, intracellular signaling pathways and external stimuli. Several classes of natural products and synthesized compounds have been studied to target these regulatory elements and force CSCs to lose stemness and/or terminally differentiate and thereby achieve a therapeutic effect. However, realization of an effective treatment for breast cancers, focused on the biological effects of these agents on breast CSCs, their functions and signaling, has not yet been achieved. In this review, we delineate the intrinsic and extrinsic factors identified to date that control or promote stemness in breast CSCs and provide a comprehensive compilation of potential agents that have been studied to target breast CSCs, transcription factors and stemness-related signaling. Our aim is to stimulate further study of these agents that could become the basis for their use as stand-alone treatments or components of combination therapies effective against breast cancers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-100
Number of pages28
JournalMolecular Carcinogenesis
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology
  • Cancer Research


  • breast cancer
  • cancer stem cells
  • differentiation
  • pluripotency


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