Purpose: E-cadherin is a transmembrane glycoprotein, involved in cell-cell adhesion and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Vimentin is highly expressed in mesenchymal cells and is positively correlated with increased metastasis. Here we set out to determine the expression of E-cadherin and vimentin in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC).
Patients and methods: Twenty-six patients with primary stage II-IV HNSCC were included. E-cadherin and vimentin were visualised using immunohistochemistry, semi-automatically analysed for expression patterns and correlated with the clinical behaviour of these tumours.
Results: A large variation in E-cadherin and vimentin expression was observed between tumours (median 17% range 0-51% respectively median 0% range 0-20%). Tumours with low E-cadherin expression showed a significantly higher incidence of metastasis formation compared to tumours with high expression (81% versus 19%, p=0.004). Enhanced expression of vimentin was associated with a trend towards a higher metastatic risk (33% versus 77%) compared to tumours without expression of vimentin. All patients with low E-cadherin and high vimentin expression (an EMT-phenotype) developed distant metastases versus only 44% of the other patients (p=0.008).
Conclusion: Loss of E-cadherin and gain of vimentin may be associated with enhanced migration of tumour cells, leading to higher metastatic risk of HNSCC patients.
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