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Int J Cancer. 1996 Aug 7;67(4):563-72.

Spontaneous de-differentiation correlates with extended lifespan in transformed thyroid epithelial cells: an epigenetic mechanism of tumour progression?

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Cancer Research Campaign Thyroid Tumour Biology Research Group, Department of Pathology, University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff, UK.


Normal thyroid follicular cells, like many highly differentiated epithelia, have limited proliferative capacity. We previously showed that this could be extended by expression of the SV40 large T oncogene, but that immortal lines always lost thyroid-specific differentiation. Detailed analysis now show that clones expressing T undergo 2 mutually exclusive fates. They either (i) remain well-differentiated, in which case they undergo irreversible growth arrest after 5 to 15 p.d., or (ii) spontaneously develop poorly differentiated sub-clones that exhibit greatly extended proliferative life spans (up to 75 p.d.). The frequency of this event (> 3 per 10(4) cell divisions) greatly exceeds that expected from somatic mutation, suggesting an epigenetic basis. This is supported by our finding of rare de-differentiated epithelial cells in normal thyroid that all generate clones with extended life spans, indistinguishable from the above, following introduction of SV40 T. Escape from early mortality in differentiated thyroid epithelium therefore requires not only loss of tumour suppressor gene function (induced here by SV40 T), but also a switch in differentiation programme, with the latter effectively converting the follicular cell into a cell type with increased intrinsic proliferative potential. The analogy between this in vitro model and the progression of thyroid cancer from the well-differentiated to the highly aggressive, anaplastic form suggests that de-differentiation may play a causal rather than a passive role in this critical switch in tumour behaviour.

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