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From Adult Stem Cells to Cancer Stem Cells

Oct-4 Gene, Cell–Cell Communication, and Hormones during Tumor Promotion


Address for correspondence: James E. Trosko, Ph.D., Pediatrics and Human Development, Michigan State University, 246 Food Safety and Toxicology. Voice: 517-432-3100, ext. 188; fax: 517-432-6340.


Abstract: Carcinogenesis is characterized by “initiation,”“promotion,” and “progression” phases. The “stem cell theory” and “de-differentiation” theories are used to explain the origin of cancer. Growth control for stem cells, which lack functional gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC), involves negative soluble or niche factors, while for progenitor cells, it involves GJIC. Tumor promoters, hormones, and growth factors inhibit GJIC reversibly. Oncogenes stably inhibit GJIC. Cancer cells, which lack growth control and the ability to terminally differentiate and to apoptose, lack GJIC. The Oct3/4 gene, a POU (Pit-Oct-Unc) family of transcription factors was thought to be expressed only in embryonic stem cells and in tumor cells. With the availability of normal adult human stem cells, tests for the expression of Oct3/4 gene and the stem cell theory in human carcinogenesis became possible. Human breast, liver, pancreas, kidney, mesenchyme, and gastric stem cells, HeLa and MCF-7 cells, and canine tumors were tested with antibodies and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) primers for Oct3/4. Adult human breast stem cells, immortalized nontumorigenic and tumor cell lines, but not the normal differentiated cells, expressed Oct3/4. Adult human differentiated cells lose their Oct-4 expression. Oct3/4 is expressed in a few cells found in the basal layer of human skin epidermis. The data demonstrate that normal adult stem cells and cancer stem cells maintain expression of Oct3/4, consistent with the stem cell hypothesis of carcinogenesis. These Oct-4 positive cells might represent the “cancer stem cells.” A strategy to target “cancer stem cells” is to suppress the Oct-4 gene in order to cause the cells to differentiate.