Management of biliary tract cancer remains challenging. Tumors show high recurrence rates and therapeutic resistance, leading to dismal prognosis and short survival. The cancer stem cell model states that a tumor is a heterogeneous conglomerate of cells, in which a certain subpopulation of cells - the cancer stem cells - possesses stem cell properties. Cancer stem cells have high clinical relevance due to their potential contributions to development, progression and aggressiveness as well as recurrence and metastasis of malignant tumors. Consequently, reliable identification of as well as pharmacological intervention with cancer stem cells is an intensively investigated and promising research field. The involvement of cancer stem cells in biliary tract cancer is likely as a number of studies demonstrated their existence and the obvious clinical relevance of several established cancer stem cell markers in biliary tract cancer models and tissues. In the present article, we review and discuss the currently available literature addressing the role of putative cancer stem cells in biliary tract cancer as well as the connection between known contributors of biliary tract tumorigenesis such as oncogenic signaling pathways, micro-RNAs and the tumor microenvironment with cancer stem cells.
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