• breast cancer;
  • stem cells

Proliferation in continuously renewing tissues, including the mammary gland, is hierarchically organized with a small number of slowly dividing stem cells and a greater number of more rapidly proliferating ‘transit amplifying’ cells. Mammary stem cells have been recently identified and purified based on their surface antigen expression. The recognition of mammary epithelial stem cells had led to the hypothesis that these may be at the root of breast cancer. In support of this, a highly tumorigenic subpopulation of cancer cells – cancer stem cells – has recently been identified in primary and metastatic breast cancer samples and in a number of established breast cancer cell lines. The existence of cancer stem cells would explain why only a small minority of cancer cells is capable of extensive proliferation and transferral of the tumour. In this article we aim to review the evidence in support of the existence of both normal mammary stem cells and breast cancer stem cells, and provide further insight into how taking this subpopulation of cells into account may affect the way we treat epithelial cancers in the future.