BACKGROUND:Cancer is frequently associated with tumor-related anemia, and many chemotherapeutic agents impair hematopoiesis, leading to impaired quality of life for affected patients. The use of erythropoiesis-stimulating agents has come under scrutiny after prospective clinical trials using recombinant erythropoietin to correct anemia reported increased incidence of thromboembolic events and cancer-related deaths. Furthermore, previous preclinical reports indicated expansion of the pool of breast cancer-initiating cells when erythropoietin was combined with ionizing radiation. METHODS:Using four established breast cancer cell lines, we test the effects of recombinant human erythropoietin and the number of breast cancer-initiating cells in vitro and in vivo and study if recombinant human erythropoietin promotes the phenotype conversion of non-tumorigenic breast cancer cells into breast cancer-initiating cells. In a prospective study, we evaluate whether elevated endogenous serum erythropoietin levels correlate with increased numbers of tumor-initiating cells in a cohort of breast cancer patients who were scheduled to undergo radiation treatment. RESULTS:Our results indicate that recombinant erythropoietin increased the number of tumor-initiating cells in established breast cancer lines in vitro. Irradiation of breast cancer xenografts caused a phenotype conversion of non-stem breast cancer cells into induced breast cancer-initiating cells. This effect coincided with re-expression of the pluripotency factors c-Myc, Sox2, and Oct4 and was enhanced by recombinant erythropoietin. Hemoglobin levels were inversely correlated with serum erythropoietin levels, and the latter were correlated with disease stage. However, tumor sections revealed a negative correlation between serum erythropoietin levels and the number of ALDH1A3-positive cells, a marker for breast cancer-initiating cells. CONCLUSIONS:We conclude that physiologically slow-rising serum erythropoietin levels in response to tumor-related or chemotherapy-induced anemia, as opposed to large doses of recombinant erythropoietin, do not increase the pool of breast cancer-initiating cells.