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Semin Cancer Biol. 2011 Feb;21(1):44-58. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2010.12.010. Epub 2010 Dec 21.

Beta-catenin signaling, liver regeneration and hepatocellular cancer: sorting the good from the bad.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, SOM, Pittsburgh, PA 15261, United States.


Among the adult organs, liver is unique for its ability to regenerate. A concerted signaling cascade enables optimum initiation of the regeneration process following insults brought about by surgery or a toxicant. Additionally, there exists a cellular redundancy, whereby a transiently amplifying progenitor population appears and expands to ensure regeneration, when differentiated cells of the liver are unable to proliferate in both experimental and clinical scenarios. One such pathway of relevance in these phenomena is Wnt/β-catenin signaling, which is activated relatively early during regeneration mostly through post-translational modifications. Once activated, β-catenin signaling drives the expression of target genes that are critical for cell cycle progression and contribute to initiation of the regeneration process. The role and regulation of Wnt/β-catenin signaling is now documented in rats, mice, zebrafish and patients. More recently, a regenerative advantage of the livers in β-catenin overexpressing mice was reported, as was also the case after exogenous Wnt-1 delivery to the liver paving the way for assessing means to stimulate the pathway for therapeutics in liver failure. β-Catenin is also pertinent in hepatic oval cell activation and differentiation. However, aberrant activation of the Wnt/β-catenin signaling is reported in a significant subset of hepatocellular cancers (HCC). While many mechanisms of such activation have been reported, the most functional means of aberrant and sustained activation is through mutations in the β-catenin gene or in AXIN1/2, which encodes for a scaffolding protein critical for β-catenin degradation. Intriguingly, in experimental models hepatic overexpression of normal or mutant β-catenin is insufficient for tumorigenesis. In fact β-catenin loss promoted chemical carcinogenesis in the liver due to alternate mechanisms. Since most HCC occur in the backdrop of chronic hepatic injury, where hepatic regeneration is necessary for maintenance of liver function, but at the same time serves as the basis of dysplastic changes, this Promethean attribute exhibits a Jekyll and Hyde behavior that makes distinguishing good regeneration from bad regeneration essential for targeting selective molecular pathways as personalized medicine becomes a norm in clinical practice. Could β-catenin signaling be one such pathway that may be redundant in regeneration and indispensible in HCC in a subset of cases?

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