Progression of melanoma is associated with loss of the transcription factor AP-2alpha and tyrosine-kinase receptor c-kit. However, the mechanisms by which these two proteins are down-regulated have not been fully elucidated. Fifty non-selected melanomas comprising ten superficial spreading melanomas (five exhibiting a radial growth phase and five a vertical growth phase), ten primary nodular melanomas, 30 melanoma metastases, and 16 naevi were investigated by direct sequencing analysis of the AP-2alpha and c-kit genes and by immunohistochemistry for the respective proteins. Because it has recently been demonstrated that AP-2alpha is preferentially cleaved by caspase-6 and to a lesser extent by caspase-3, immunohistochemistry for the cleaved (activated) forms of caspase-6 (c-casp-6) and caspase-3 (c-casp-3) was carried out. No mutations were identified in the c-kit gene, but three different point mutations were demonstrated in the activation motif of AP-2alpha in four tumours: one vertical growth phase superficial spreading melanoma, one nodular melanoma, and two metastases. Immunohistochemistry revealed progressive loss of the AP-2alpha and c-kit proteins in primary melanomas and metastases when compared with naevi. The decrease of both markers was more accentuated in the dermal component of all primary tumours, with c-kit more affected than AP-2alpha. All invasive melanomas and metastases expressed c-casp-6. c-casp-3 was expressed by 83% of the metastases and in the dermal component of one nodular melanoma. These findings suggest that the loss of AP-2alpha protein expression during the progression of melanoma could be related to mutation of the gene in only a small number of tumours, whereas the expression and activation of caspases, most prominently caspase-6, may be an important factor for the down-regulation of AP-2alpha protein. Furthermore, this study supports recent data that the activation of caspases does not inevitably result in apoptosis, but may also contribute to tumour progression in melanomas.
Copyright 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.