Transferrin receptor is a marker of malignant phenotype in human pancreatic cancer and in neuroendocrine carcinoma of the pancreas

Eur J Cancer. 2004 Jun;40(9):1418-22. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2004.01.036.


Transferrin receptor (TFRC) is a membrane-bound protein expressed in larger amounts in proliferating, e.g., malignant, cells than in quiescent cells. The specific expression of TFRC can represent a diagnostic tool or a therapeutic target in solid tumours expressing this antigen. Whether TFRC is expressed in human pancreatic tumours is unknown. The aim of this study was the investigation of the expression of TFRC and transferrin in human pancreatic cancer and in neuroendocrine tumours of the pancreas. Fifty one specimens of human pancreatic cancer and 14 samples of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours were obtained after surgery. The expression of TFRC, transferrin and cytokeratin was studied by standard immunohistochemistry. Flow cytometry was used for the investigation of TFRC expression in nine cell lines of ductal pancreatic cancer in vitro. In contrast to normal tissue, 93% of pancreatic tumour cells showed positive (82%) or heterogeneous (11%) expression of TFRC. It was strongly expressed by malignant epithelial cells; normal stromal and endothelial cells were not stained by anti-TFRC antibodies. Primary tumours and metastases showed a similar frequency of TFRC expression. Three neuroendocrine carcinomas showed positive expression of TFRC by malignant tumour cells. The expression of TFRC was negative in benign neuroendocrine tumours of the pancreas. The cell lines of pancreatic cancer were characterised by a low expression of TFRC in vitro. In contrast to normal pancreatic tissue and benign neuroendocrine tumours of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer and neuroendocrine carcinoma are therefore characterised frequently by high expression of TFRC. Hence, TFRC represents a marker of malignant transformation in the pancreas that could be applied as potential diagnostic and therapeutic target.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / chemistry*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry / methods
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors / chemistry*
  • Pancreas / chemistry
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / chemistry*
  • Receptors, Transferrin / analysis*
  • Transferrin / analysis


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin