Stability of a learning algorithm with respect to small input perturbations is an important property, as it implies that the derived models are robust with respect to the presence of noisy features and/or data sample fluctuations. The qualitative nature of the stability property enhardens the development of practical, stability optimizing, data mining algorithms as several issues naturally arise, such as: how "much" stability is enough, or how can stability be effectively associated with intrinsic data properties. In the context of this work we take into account these issues and explore the effect of stability maximization in the continuous (PCA-based) k-means clustering problem. Our analysis is based on both mathematical optimization and statistical arguments that complement each other and allow for the solid interpretation of the algorithm's stability properties. Interestingly, we derive that stability maximization naturally introduces a tradeoff between cluster separation and variance, leading to the selection of features that have a high cluster separation index that is not artificially inflated by the features variance. The proposed algorithmic setup is based on a Sparse PCA approach, that selects the features that maximize stability in a greedy fashion. In our study, we also analyze several properties of Sparse PCA relevant to stability that promote Sparse PCA as a viable feature selection mechanism for clustering. The practical relevance of the proposed method is demonstrated in the context of cancer research, where we consider the problem of detecting potential tumor biomarkers using microarray gene expression data. The application of our method to a leukemia dataset shows that the tradeoff between cluster separation and variance leads to the selection of features corresponding to important biomarker genes. Some of them have relative low variance and are not detected without the direct optimization of stability in Sparse PCA based k-means. Apart from the qualitative evaluation, we have also verified our approach as a feature selection method for k k -means clustering using four cancer research datasets. The quantitative empirical results illustrate the practical utility of our framework as a feature selection mechanism for clustering. © 2013 The Author(s).