Background: Patients with cancer of the urinary bladder often present with metachronous tumors, appearing at different times and at different sites in the bladder. This observation has been attributed to a "field defect" in the bladder that allows the independent transformation of epithelial cells at a number of sites. We tested this hypothesis using molecular genetic techniques.
Methods: We examined 13 tumors from cystectomy specimens from four women, using a method that analyzes the pattern of X-chromosome inactivation to determine whether the tumors were derived from the same precursor cell. In addition, we analyzed allelic loss on autosomes to determine whether different tumors had the same genetic alterations. The alterations evaluated included the loss of chromosome 9q sequences (commonly found in superficial bladder tumors) and the loss of 17p and 18q sequences (usually found only in advanced tumors).
Results: For each patient studied, all the tumors had inactivation of the same X chromosome, whereas normal bladder mucosa cells had random patterns of inactivation. Moreover, each tumor that could be evaluated from a given patient had lost the same allele on chromosome 9q, suggesting that the loss of this allele preceded the spread of neoplastic cells elsewhere in the bladder. The losses of chromosome 17p and 18q alleles, which are late events in tumor progression, were not common to different tumors from the same patient.
Conclusions: A number of bladder tumors can arise from the uncontrolled spread of a single transformed cell. These tumors can then grow independently with variable subsequent genetic alterations.