The bone marrow (BM) is a major organ of breast cancer (BC) dormancy and a common source of BC resurgence. Gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) between BC cells (BCCs) and BM stroma facilitates dormancy. This study reports on a hierarchy of BCCs with the most immature subset (Oct4 hi/CD44hi/med/CD24-/+) demonstrating chemoresistance, dormancy, and stem cell properties: self-renewal, serial passaging ability, cycling quiescence, long doubling time, asymmetric division, high metastatic and invasive capability. In vitro and in vivo studies indicated that this subset was responsible for GJIC with BM stroma. Similar BCCs were detected in the blood of patients despite aggressive treatment and in a patient with a relatively large tumor but no lymph node involvement. In brief, these findings identified a novel BCC subset with stem cell properties, with preference for dormancy and in the circulation of patients. The findings establish a working cellular hierarchy of BCCs based on phenotype and functions.
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