Cadherins in cancer

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2004;(165):69-103. doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-68170-0_4.


The presence of a functional E-cadherin/catenin cell-cell adhesion complex is a prerequisite for normal development and maintenance of epithelial structures in the mammalian body. This implies that the acquisition of molecular abnormalities that disturb the expression or function of this complex is related to the development and progression of most, if not all, epithelial cell-derived tumors, i.e. carcinomas. E-cadherin downregulation is indeed correlated with malignancy parameters such as tumor progression, loss of differentiation, invasion and metastasis, and hence poor prognosis. Moreover, E-cadherin has been shown to be a potent invasion suppressor as well as a tumor suppressor. Disturbed expression profiles of the E-cadherin/catenin complex have been demonstrated in histological sections of many human tumor types. In different kinds of carcinomas, biallelic downregulation of the E-cadherin gene, resulting in tumor-restricted decrease or even complete loss of E-cadherin expression, appears to be caused by a variety of inactivation mechanisms. Gene deletion due to loss of heterozygosity of the CDH1 locus on 16q22.1 frequently occurs in many carcinoma types. However, somatic inactivating mutations resulting in aberrant E-cadherin expression by loss of both wild-type alleles is rare and restricted to only a few cancer types. A majority of carcinomas thus seems to show deregulated E-cadherin expression by other mechanisms. The present evidence proposes transcriptional repression as a powerful and recurrent molecular mechanism for silencing E-cadherin expression. The predominant mechanisms emerging in most carcinomas are hypermethylation of the E-cadherin promoter and expression of transrepressor molecules such as SIP1, Snail, and Slug that bind sequence elements in the proximal E-cadherin promoter. Interestingly, complex differential expression of other cadherins seems to be associated with loss of E-cadherin and to reinforce effects of this loss on tumor progression. Multiple agents can upregulate and stabilize the E-cadherin/catenin complex. Especially for those tumors with transcriptional and thus reversible downregulation of E-cadherin expression, these drug agents offer important therapeutic opportunities.