Maspin is a 42-kDa novel serine protease inhibitor (serpin) with multifaceted tumor suppressive activities. To date, the consensus that maspin expression predicts a better prognosis still largely holds for breast, prostate, colon, and oral squamous cancers. Interestingly, however, more detailed analyses revealed a biphasic expression pattern of maspin in early steps of tumorigenicity and re-expression of maspin in dormant cancer metastatic revertants. These data suggest a sensitivity of maspin expression to changes of epithelial microenvironments, and a role of maspin in epithelial homeostasis. Experimental evidence consistently showed that maspin suppresses tumor growth, invasion and metastasis, induces tumor redifferentiation, and enhances tumor cell sensitivity to apoptosis. Maspin protein isolated from biological sources is a monomer, which is present as a secreted, a cytoplasmic, a nuclear, as well as a cell surface-associated protein. Nuclear maspin is associated with better prognoses of cancer. It is further noted that extracellular maspin is sufficient to block tumor induced extracellular matrix degradation, tumor cell motility and invasion, whereas intracellular maspin is responsible for the increased cellular sensitivity to apoptosis. Despite these exciting developments, the mechanistic studies of maspin have proven challenging primarily due to the lack of a prototype molecular model. Although the maspin sequence has overall homologies with other members in the serpin superfamily, it does not behave like a typical serpin, that is, non-inhibitory toward active serine proteases in solution. This novel feature is in line with the X-ray crystallographic evidence. Several recent studies dedicated to finding the maspin partners support a paradigm shift. The current review is intended to summarize these recent findings and discuss a new perspective of maspin in epithelial homeostasis.
2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.