Establishing macrometastases at distant organs is a highly challenging process for cancer cells, with extremely high attrition rates. A very small percentage of disseminated cells have the ability to dynamically adapt to their changing micro-environments through reversibly switching to another phenotype, aiding metastasis. Such plasticity can be exhibited along one or more axes – epithelial-mesenchymal plasticity (EMP) and cancer stem cells (CSCs) being the two most studied, and often tacitly assumed to be synonymous. Here, we review the emerging concepts related to EMP and CSCs across multiple cancers. Both processes are multi-dimensional in nature; for instance, EMP can be defined on morphological, molecular and functional changes, which may or may not be synchronized. Similarly, self-renewal, multi-lineage potential, and anoikis and/or therapy resistance may not all occur simultaneously in CSCs. Thus, arriving at rigorous functional definitions for both EMP and CSCs is crucial. These processes are dynamic, reversible, and semi-independent in nature; cells traverse the inter-connected high-dimensional EMP and CSC landscapes in diverse paths, each of which may exhibit a distinct EMP-CSC coupling. Our proposed model offers a potential unifying framework for elucidating the coupled decision-making along these dimensions and highlights a key set of open questions to be answered.
epithelial-mesenchymal plasticity; stemness; landscape; phenotypic plasticity; cancer stem cells; metastasis
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