Molecular genetics of small cell lung carcinoma

Semin Oncol. 2001 Apr;28(2 Suppl 4):3-13.


The etiology of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is strongly tied to cigarette smoking, and now there is considerable information concerning molecular abnormalities involved in the pathogenesis of SCLC. Autocrine growth factors such as neuroendocrine regulatory peptides (eg, bombesin/gastrin-releasing peptide) are prominent in SCLC. Dominant oncogenes of the Myc family are frequently overexpressed in both SCLC and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), while the K-RAS oncogene is never mutated in SCLC but it is in 30% of NSCLCs. The most frequent genetic abnormalities involve tumor suppressor genes (TSGs). The TSG p53 is mutated in more than 90% of SCLCs and more than 50% of NSCLCs; the retinoblastoma TSG is inactivated in over 90% of SCLC but only 15% of NSCLCs, and p16, the other component of the retinoblastoma/p16 pathway, is almost never abnormal in SCLC but is inactivated in more than 50% of NSCLCs. The FHIT TSG is inactivated in 50% to 70% of all lung cancers. Recently, we completed a genome-wide allelotyping study using approximately 400 polymorphic markers distributed at around 10 cM resolution across the human genome comparing SCLCs and NSCLCs, looking for all possible TSG sites by loss of heterozygosity. We found that, on average, 17 loci showed loss of heterozygosity in individual SCLCs and 22 for NSCLC, with an average size of loss of 50 to 60 cM, and an average frequency of microsatellite abnormalities of five per tumor. There were 22 different "hot spots" for loss of heterozygosity, 13 with a preference for SCLC, seven for NSCLC, and two affecting both. This provides clear evidence on a genome-wide scale that SCLC and NSCLC differ significantly in the TSGs that are inactivated during their pathogenesis. Acquired hypermethylation of the promoter region of key genes has become one of the most common mechanisms that tumors use to inactivate the function of tumor suppressor and other genes. We recently completed a study of tumor-acquired promoter hypermethylation for nine genes (p16, DAPK, MGMT, GSTP1, RAR beta, FHIT, ECAD, p14ARF, and TIMP1). We found differences in the frequency of RAR beta methylation (70% for SCLC and 40% for NSCLCs). Finally, we looked at the bronchial epithelium accompanying SCLC and NSCLC for the occurrence of clonal alterations using precise laser capture microdissection with subsequent allelotyping for polymorphic markers. In NSCLC, we frequently find clones of cells with molecular abnormalities in histologically affected epithelium (eg, carcinoma in situ, dysplasia, hyperplasia) and occasionally in normal-appearing epithelium in the cases of current or former smokers. In SCLC these histologic preneoplastic changes were minimal. However, in studies of histologically normal respiratory epithelium, we found a several-fold increased rate of allele loss in SCLC compared with NSCLC patients. Thus, the smoking-damaged histologically normal epithelium associated with SCLC appeared genetically scrambled and has incurred significantly more damage than the epithelium accompanying NSCLCs. We conclude that SCLC and NSCLCs do not differ significantly in the number of genetic alterations that occur. However, SCLCs do differ significantly from NSCLCs in the specific genetic alterations that occur. In addition, smoking-damaged bronchial epithelium accompanying SCLCs appears to have undergone significantly more acquired genetic damage than that accompanying NSCLCs. Future studies need to identify the specific genes involved at these multiple sites and determine if these provide new tools for early molecular detection and monitoring of chemoprevention efforts, and serve as specific targets for developing new therapies. Semin Oncol 28 (suppl 4):3-13.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / pathology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Chromosome Aberrations
  • DNA Methylation
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Mutation
  • Oncogenes
  • Precancerous Conditions