Tight junctions, or zonula occludens, are the most apical component of the junctional complex and provide one form of cell-cell adhesion in epithelial and endothelial cells. Nearly 90% of malignant tumors are derived from the epithelium. Loss of cell-cell adhesion is one of the steps in the progression of cancer to metastasis. At least three main tight junction family proteins have been discovered: occludin, claudin, and junctional adhesion molecule (JAM). Claudins are the most important structural and functional components of tight junction integral membrane proteins, with at least 24 members in mammals. They are crucial for the paracellular flux of ions and small molecules. Overexpression or downregulation of claudins is frequently observed in epithelial-derived cancers. However, molecular mechanisms by which claudins affect tumorigenesis remain largely unknown. As the pivotal proteins in epithelial cells, altered expression and distribution of different claudins have been reported in a wide variety of human malignancies, including pancreatic, colonic, lung, ovarian, thyroid, prostate, esophageal, and breast cancers. In this review, we will give the readers an overall picture of the changes in claudin expression observed in various cancers and their mechanisms of regulation. Downregulation of claudins contributes to epithelial transformation by increasing the paracellular permeability of nutrients and growth factors to cancerous cells. In the cases of upregulation of claudin expression, the barrier function of the cancerous epithelia changes, as they often display a disorganized arrangement of tight junction strands with increased permeability to paracellular markers. Finally, we will summarize the literature suggesting that claudins may become useful biomarkers for cancer detection and diagnosis as well as possible therapeutic targets for cancer treatment.
Keywords: claudins; human cancers; tight junctions.