The role of microRNAs in breast cancer stem cells

Daniela Schwarzenbacher, Marija Balic, Martin Pichler
International Journal of Molecular Sciences 2013, 14 (7): 14712-23
The concept of the existence of a subset of cancer cells with stem cell-like properties, which are thought to play a significant role in tumor formation, metastasis, resistance to anticancer therapies and cancer recurrence, has gained tremendous attraction within the last decade. These cancer stem cells (CSCs) are relatively rare and have been described by different molecular markers and cellular features in different types of cancers. Ten years ago, a novel class of molecules, small non-protein-coding RNAs, was found to be involved in carcinogenesis. These small RNAs, which are called microRNAs (miRNAs), act as endogenous suppressors of gene expression that exert their effect by binding to the 3'-untranslated region (UTR) of large target messenger RNAs (mRNAs). MicroRNAs trigger either translational repression or mRNA cleavage of target mRNAs. Some studies have shown that putative breast cancer stem cells (BCSCs) exhibit a distinct miRNA expression profile compared to non-tumorigenic breast cancer cells. The deregulated miRNAs may contribute to carcinogenesis and self-renewal of BCSCs via several different pathways and can act either as oncomirs or as tumor suppressive miRNAs. It has also been demonstrated that certain miRNAs play an essential role in regulating the stem cell-like phenotype of BCSCs. Some miRNAs control clonal expansion or maintain the self-renewal and anti-apoptotic features of BCSCs. Others are targeting the specific mRNA of their target genes and thereby contribute to the formation and self-renewal process of BCSCs. Several miRNAs are involved in epithelial to mesenchymal transition, which is often implicated in the process of formation of CSCs. Other miRNAs were shown to be involved in the increased chemotherapeutic resistance of BCSCs. This review highlights the recent findings and crucial role of miRNAs in the maintenance, growth and behavior of BCSCs, thus indicating the potential for novel diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic miRNA-based strategies.

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