Cell adhesion system and human cancer morphogenesis

Cancer Sci. 2003 Jul;94(7):575-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1349-7006.2003.tb01485.x.


Cell-cell adhesion determines the polarity of cells and participates in the maintenance of the cell societies called tissues. Cell-cell adhesiveness is generally reduced in human cancers. Reduced intercellular adhesiveness allows cancer cells to disobey the social order, resulting in destruction of histological structure, which is the morphological hallmark of malignant tumors. Reduced intercellular adhesiveness is also indispensable for cancer invasion and metastasis. A tumor-suppressor gene product, E-cadherin, and its undercoat proteins, catenins, which connect cadherins to actin filaments, are located at lateral borders, concentrating on adherens junctions, of epithelial cells and establish firm cell-cell adhesion. The E-cadherin cell adhesion system in cancer cells is inactivated by various mechanisms that reflect the morphological and biological characteristics of the tumor. Silencing of the E-cadherin gene by DNA hypermethylation around the promoter region occurs frequently, even in precancerous conditions. In diffuse infiltrating cancers, mutations are found in the genes for E-cadherin and alpha- and beta-catenins. At the invading front of cancers, the E-cadherin cell adhesion system is inactivated by tyrosine phosphorylation of beta-catenin; an oncogene product, c-erbB-2 protein, is found to associate directly with beta-catenin. The E-cadherin cell adhesion system cross-talks with the Wingless/Wnt signaling pathway through beta-catenin, and expression of genes, which participate in cancer morphogenesis, may be regulated in conjunction with the Wingless/Wnt signaling pathway. Dysadherin, a newly identified cancer-associated cell membrane glycoprotein, down-regulates E-cadherin and promotes cancer metastasis. In conclusion, inactivation of the E-cadherin cell adhesion system by both genetic and epigenetic mechanisms plays a significant role during multistage human carcinogenesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cadherins / genetics
  • Cadherins / physiology*
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology*
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / physiology
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins / genetics
  • DNA Methylation
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Morphogenesis
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / physiology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Trans-Activators / genetics
  • Wnt Proteins
  • Zebrafish Proteins*
  • alpha Catenin
  • beta Catenin


  • CTNNA1 protein, human
  • CTNNB1 protein, human
  • Cadherins
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Trans-Activators
  • Wnt Proteins
  • Zebrafish Proteins
  • alpha Catenin
  • beta Catenin