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Zhenying Guo, Heather Hardin and Ricardo V Lloyd

Thyroid cancer is one of the most rapidly increasing malignancies. The reasons for this increase is not completely known, but increases in the diagnosis of papillary thyroid microcarcinomas and follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinomas along with the enhanced detection of well-differentiated thyroid carcinomas are probably all contributing factors. Although most cases of well-differentiated thyroid carcinomas are associated with an excellent prognosis, a small percentage of patients with well-differentiated thyroid carcinomas as well as most patients with poorly differentiated and anaplastic thyroid carcinomas have recurrent and/or metastatic disease that is often fatal. The cancer stem-like cell (CSC) model suggests that a small number of cells within a cancer, known as CSCs, are responsible for resistance to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, as well as for recurrent and metastatic disease. This review discusses current studies about thyroid CSCs, the processes of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition that provide plasticity to CSC growth, in addition to the role of microRNAs in CSC development and regulation. Understanding the biology of CSCs, EMT and the metastatic cascade should lead to the design of more rational targeted therapies for highly aggressive and fatal thyroid cancers.

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Weijun Wei, Heather Hardin and Quan-Yong Luo

Thyroid cancer is one of the most common endocrine malignancies. Although the prognosis for the majority of thyroid cancers is relatively good, patients with metastatic, radioiodine-refractory or anaplastic thyroid cancers have an unfavorable outcome. With the gradual understanding of the oncogenic events in thyroid cancers, molecularly targeted therapy using tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) is greatly changing the therapeutic landscape of radioiodine-refractory differentiated thyroid cancers (RR-DTCs), but intrinsic and acquired drug resistance, as well as adverse effects, may limit their clinical efficacy and use. In this setting, development of synergistic treatment options is of clinical significance, which may enhance the therapeutic effect of current TKIs and further overcome the resultant drug resistance. Autophagy is a critical cellular process involved not only in protecting cells and organisms from stressors but also in the maintenance and development of various kinds of cancers. Substantial studies have explored the complex role of autophagy in thyroid cancers. Specifically, autophagy plays important roles in mediating the drug resistance of small-molecular therapeutics, in regulating the dedifferentiation process of thyroid cancers and also in affecting the treatment outcome of radioiodine therapy. Exploring how autophagy intertwines in the development and dedifferentiation process of thyroid cancers is essential, which will enable a more profound understanding of the physiopathology of thyroid cancers. More importantly, these advances may fuel future development of autophagy-targeted therapeutic strategies for patients with thyroid cancers. Herein, we summarize the most recent evidence uncovering the role of autophagy in thyroid cancers and highlight future research perspectives in this regard.