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Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2012 Mar 31;351(1):2-11. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2011.12.006. Epub 2012 Jan 13.

Adrenocortical stem and progenitor cells: implications for adrenocortical carcinoma.

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  • 1Cellular and Molecular Biology Training Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, United States.


The continuous centripetal repopulation of the adrenal cortex is consistent with a population of cells endowed with the stem/progenitor cell properties of self-renewal and pluripotency. The adrenocortical capsule and underlying undifferentiated cortical cells are emerging as critical components of the stem/progenitor cell niche. Recent genetic analysis has identified various signaling pathways including Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) and Wnt as crucial mediators of adrenocortical lineage and organ homeostasis. Shh expression is restricted to the peripheral cortical cells that express a paucity of steroidogenic genes but give rise to the underlying differentiated cells of the cortex. Wnt/β-catenin signaling maintains the undifferentiated state and adrenal fate of adrenocortical stem/progenitor cells, in part through induction of its target genes Dax1 and inhibin-α, respectively. The pathogenesis of ACC, a rare yet highly aggressive cancer with an extremely poor prognosis, is slowly emerging from studies of the stem/progenitor cells of the adrenal cortex coupled with the genetics of familial syndromes in which ACC occurs. The frequent observation of constitutive activation of Wnt signaling due to loss-of-function mutations in the tumor suppressor gene APC or gain-of-function mutation in β-catenin in both adenomas and carcinomas, suggests perhaps that the Wnt pathway serves an early or initiating insult in the oncogenic process. Loss of p53 might be predicted to cooperate with additional genetic insults such as IGF2 as both are the most common genetic abnormalities in malignant versus benign adrenocortical neoplasms. It is unclear whether other factors such as Pod1 and Pref1, which are implicated in stem/progenitor cell biology in the adrenal and/or other organs, are also implicated in the etiology of adrenocortical carcinoma. The rarity and heterogeneous presentation of ACC makes it difficult to identify the cellular origin and the molecular progression to cancer. A more complete understanding of adrenocortical stem/progenitor cell biology will invariably aid in characterization of the molecular details of ACC tumorigenesis and may offer new options for therapeutic intervention.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

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