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Acta Gastroenterol Belg. 1999 Oct-Dec;62(4):393-402.

The role of the E-cadherin/catenin complex in gastrointestinal cancer.

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  • 1Department of Radiotherapy and Nuclear Medicine, University Hospital Gent, Belgium.


Cancer is a genetic disease. The unstable genome of cancer cells causes tumour progression through multiple alterations in suppressor and promoter genes, leading to loss of homeostatic and gain of oncogenic functions. Invasion is the critical step in the acquisition of malignancy. It implicates a continuous molecular conversation of the cancer cells with other cells and with the extracellular matrix in which adhesion molecules are crucial. One of these, E-cadherin, is discussed in the present review. E-cadherin is a transmembrane glycoprotein that forms a complex with cytoplasmic proteins, termed catenins because they link E-cadherin to the actin cytoskeleton. E-cadherin/catenin-mediated intercellular adhesion and communication is mainly homophylic homotypic. There is compelling evidence from experiments in vitro as well as in vivo to accept that the E-cadherin/catenin complex acts as an invasion suppressor. The mechanism of this action is not only through cell-cell adhesion but also through transduction of signals to the cell's motility system. In the replication error positive human colon cancer cell line HCT-8, the alpha E-catenin gene CTNNA1 is an invasion suppressor gene. Here, the transition from the non-invasive to the invasive state was prevented by introduction into the unstable non-invasive cells of either an extra CTNNA1 or a wild type hMSH6 mismatch repair gene. beta-catenin also participates at a complex which comprises the adenomatous polyposis cancer protein APC. In colorectal cancer, mutation of either APC or beta-catenin is oncogenic. Downregulation of the E-cadherin/catenin complex may occur in several ways amongst which are gene mutations, methylation of 5'CpG dinucleotides within the promotor region of E-cadherin, tyrosine phosphorylation of beta-catenin, cell surface expression of proteoglycans sterically hindering E-cadherin and proteolytic release of fragments from the extracellular part of E-cadherin. Upregulation of the E-cadherin/catenin complex has been realized with a series of agents, some of which can be used therapeutically. In most human gastrointestinal cancers the E-cadherin/catenin or related complexes are disturbed and this underscores their pivotal role in the progression of these tumours. Mutations of the E-cadherin gene, including germline mutations, occur in diffuse gastric carcinoma, CpG methylation around the promotor region of E-cadherin in hepatocellular carcinomas and mutations of the APC tumour suppressor gene or in the beta-catenin oncogene in most colorectal cancers. The literature agrees about the disturbance of immunohistochemical patterns of E-cadherin and catenin expression in gastrointestinal cancers. Conflicting opinions do, however, exist about the prognostic value of such immunohistochemical aberrations. We doubt that immunohistochemistry of E-cadherin or catenins add prognostic value to the already used histological grading systems. In our opinion the major benefit from understanding of the E-cadherin/catenin-mediated pathways of invasion will be the development of new anti-invasive treatment strategies.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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