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Differentiation and tumor progression.

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  • 1Division of Carcinogenesis and Differentiation, German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg.


Clinical and experimental experience indicate that differentiation and malignancy are inversely correlated. However, more recent experimental studies using mouse and human keratinocyte systems have demonstrated that complete or even substantial loss in overall epithelial differentiation is not a prerequisite for malignant growth of cancer cells. Major defects in differentiation are also not a prerequisite for premalignant stages, in particular for cell immortalization, which is considered an early and essential step in the transformation process. Moreover, progressive dedifferentiation, often associated with advanced tumor stages, is also found in immortalized cell lines which are, however, nontumorigenic. On the other hand, malignant cell lines may have maintained a high degree of their normal differentiation program and sensitivity to differentiation modulators. However, to date no transformed keratinocyte cell lines with completely normal differentiation have been observed. Since epidermal keratinization is a very complex process involving many different parameters and is fully expressed only under in vivo conditions, an exact and quantitative comparison of such ill-defined phenomena (differentiation and malignancy) is still problematic. Obviously, both phenomena are under separate control and not causally linked. Nevertheless, a better understanding of factors and mechanisms regulating differentiation and of their disturbance in carcinogenesis would offer new possibilities to design novel tumor therapeutic strategies in the field of differentiation therapy.

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