Malignant progression in Barrett's esophagus: pathology and molecular biology

Recent Results Cancer Res. 2000;155:29-41. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-59600-1_3.


Due to its increasing incidence, esophageal adenocarcinoma and its precursor lesions have received increasing attention in recent years. The histopathologic steps in the process of malignant progression in Barrett's esophagus are well described and include the following: (a) metaplasia of the normal esophageal squamous epithelium to a specialized intestinal glandular epithelium, (b) development of dysplasia (classified histologically as low and high grade), and (c) development of adenocarcinoma characterized by invasive and metastatic potential. Intestinal metaplasia can be identified by the presence of goblet cells, the detection of which can be aided by finding mucin stained by Alcian blue at low pH. Despite this well-characterized sequence, the timing of the development of dysplasia and the subsequent transition to carcinoma and the risk of development of carcinoma in low- and high-grade dysplasia are not precisely known. In addition, there are problems in the identification of dysplasia, including sampling error and interobserver discrepancies among pathologists. A better understanding of the mechanisms of these events would allow early identification and elimination of high-risk lesions before adenocarcinoma with its attendant poor prognosis were able to develop. In order to better understand this process and to potentially identify early markers of malignant transformation, a variety of molecular studies have been carried out in recent years on adenocarcinoma and its precursor lesions in Barrett's esophagus. On the phenotypic level, increased expression and changes in pattern of expression of proliferation marker (Mib-1) Ki-67 antigen, overexpression of p53 protein, overexpression of growth factors such as epidermal growth factor (EGF), c-erbB2, and transforming growth factor (TGF)-a, decreased and abnormal expression of the cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin, and, in carcinomas, increased expression of serine proteases have all been described. A new area of interest is the family of rab proteins, which play an important role in maintaining cell polarity in the gastrointestinal tract. Increased expression of one of these proteins, rab11, has been described in low-grade, but not high-grade dysplasia. In cytogenetic studies, an increased S-phase fraction, followed by an increased tetraploid (4N) fraction and then aneuploidy, has been described. So far, the specific genes which have been most thoroughly investigated have been p53, APC, p16, and the sites of probable tumor suppressor genes, including 3p (FHIT), 13q, and 18q. With only a few exceptions (i.e., rab11 expression, and possibly mutations of FHIT), the numerous molecular abnormalities which have been described occur late in malignant progression, which means that the best marker which presently exists to identify high-risk lesions in Barrett's esophagus is the histologic identification of dysplasia in endoscopic biopsies, especially high-grade dysplasia. We are presently beginning studies using laser microdissection and competitive genomic hybridization (CGH), which could help to identify new chromosomal areas that might contain genes that are crucial in the early phases of malignant progression in Barrett's esophagus. In the future, identification of such early molecular events which predispose to carcinoma development will allow more precise and earlier risk assessment for individual patients, therefore, enabling more effective therapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Barrett Esophagus / metabolism
  • Barrett Esophagus / pathology*
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism*


  • Neoplasm Proteins