Normal stem cells (NSCs) are reported to exist in most tissues, including the brain, bone marrow, and probably the gastrointestinal tract. In the latter case, they are thought to possess both the self-renewal capacity and asymmetrical division capacity to generate progenitor cells which differentiate into epithelial cells. NSCs in the normal gastric mucosa are thought to be present in the proliferative zone of the neck/isthmus region, and to undergo a complex bipolar migration from the neck/isthmus region either upward or downward, becoming differentiated normal epithelial cells. NSCs in human gastric mucosa are difficult to identify due to the current lack of a useful marker. A precise definition of cancer stem cells (CSCs) is still under discussion. CSCs are generally defined as malignant cells with NSC capacity. However, many studies of CSCs have demonstrated their rapid growth and high metastatic potential, while NSCs are thought to be slow-growing and self-renewing, and to lack functional capacities such as cell migration and attachment. Recent evidence suggests the existence of CSCs in a wide variety of solid tumors. In this review, we will discuss the existence and cell biology of gastric NSCs and CSCs. We will also discuss whether gastric CSCs originate as organ-specific stem cells or as bone marrow-derived cells (BMDCs). Under certain conditions, the local microenvironment may promote the development of gastric cancer. Thus, Helicobacter pylori infection and the accompanying chronic inflammatory processes will supply critical initiators inducing cell growth and the tissue repair response, leading to carcinogenesis. This mechanism will be discussed in light of stem cell research. Progress in stem cell research in the gastric field is still limited to experimental animal models. However, recent studies should enhance our understanding of human cancer biology, and provide novel tools for the treatment of incurable gastric cancer.
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