Injection of tumor cells in mice more than 30 years ago resulted in the discovery of an epithelial antigen, later defined as a cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM). Although EpCAM has since evoked significant interest as a target in cancer therapy, mechanistic insights on the functions of this glycoprotein have been emerging only very recently. This may have been caused by the multitude of functions attributed to the glycoprotein, its localization at different subcellular sites and complex posttranslational modifications. Here, we review how EpCAM modifies cell-cell contact adhesion strength and tissue plasticity, and how it regulates cell proliferation and differentiation. Major knowledge derived from human diseases will be highlighted: Mutant EpCAM that is absent from the cell surface leads to fatal intestinal abnormalities (congenital tufting enteropathy). EpCAM-mediated cell proliferation in cancer may result from signaling (i) via regulated intramembrane proteolysis and/or (ii) the localization and association with binding partners in specialized membrane microdomains. New insight in EpCAM signaling will help to develop optimized cancer therapies and open new avenues in the field of regenerative medicine.
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