Cancer is the result of a multi-step process requiring the accumulation of mutations in several genes. For most cancers, the target cells of oncogenic mutations are unknown. Adult stem cells (SCs) might be the initial target cells as they self-renew for extended periods of time, providing increased opportunity to accumulate the mutations required for cancer formation. Certain cancers contain cells characteristics of SC with high self-renewal capacities and the ability to reform the parental tumor upon transplantation. However, whether the initial oncogenic mutations arise in normal stem cells or in more differentiated cells that re-acquire stem cell-like properties remains to be determined. The demonstration that SCs are the target cells of the initial transforming events and that cancers contain cells with SC characteristics await the development of tools allowing for the isolation and characterization of normal adult SCs. In most epithelia from which cancers naturally arise, such tools are not yet available. We have recently developed novel methods to specifically mark and isolate multipotent epidermal slow-cycling SCs, making it now possible to determine the role of SC during epithelial cancer formation. In this project, we will use mice epidermis as a model to define the role of SC in epithelial cancer initiation and growth. Specifically, we will determine whether epithelial SCs are the initial target cells of oncogenic mutations during skin cancer formation, whether oncogenic mutations lead preferentially to skin cancer when they arise in SC rather than in more committed cells and whether cancer stem cells contribute to epithelial tumor growth and relapse after therapy.
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