Epithelial-mesenchymal transition, the tumor microenvironment, and metastatic behavior of epithelial malignancies

Int J Biochem Mol Biol. 2012;3(2):117-36. Epub 2012 May 18.


Objective: The mechanisms of cancer metastasis have been intensely studied recently and may provide vital therapeutic targets for metastasis prevention. We sought to review the contribution of epithelial-mesenchymal transition and the tumor microenvironment to cancer metastasis.

Summary background data: Epithelial-mesenchymal transition is the process by which epithelial cells lose cell-cell junctions and baso-apical polarity and acquire plasticity, mobility, invasive capacity, stemlike characteristics, and resistance to apoptosis. This cell biology program is active in embryology, wound healing, and pathologically in cancer metastasis, and along with the mechanical and cellular components of the tumor microenvironment, provides critical impetus for epithelial malignancies to acquire metastatic capability.

Methods: A literature review was performed using PubMed for "epithelial-mesenchymal transition", "tumor microenvironment", "TGF-β and cancer", "Wnt and epithelial-mesenchymal transition", "Notch and epithelial-mesenchymal transition", "Hedgehog and epithelial-mesenchymal transition" and "hypoxia and metastasis". Relevant primary studies and review articles were assessed.

Results: Major signaling pathways involved in epithelial-mesenchymal transition include TGF-β, Wnt, Notch, Hedgehog, and others. These pathways converge on several transcription factors, including zinc finger proteins Snail and Slug, Twist, ZEB 1/2, and Smads. These factors interact with one another and others to provide crosstalk between the relevant signaling pathways. MicroRNA suppression and epigenetic changes also influence the changes involved in epithelial-mesenchymal transition. Cellular and mechanical components of the tumor microenvironment are also critical in determining metastatic potential.

Conclusions: While the mechanisms promoting metastasis are extremely wide ranging and still under intense investigation, the epithelial-mesenchymal transition program and the tumor microenvironment are both critically involved in the acquisition of metastatic potential. As our understanding of these complexities increases, the ability to target these processes for therapy will offer new promise in the treatment of epithelial malignancy and metastasis.

Keywords: epithelial-mesenchymal transition; metastasis; prevention; therapy; tumor microenvironment.