Mutations in BRAF are present in the majority of patients with melanoma, rendering these tumors sensitive to targeted therapy with BRAF and MEK inhibitors. Unfortunately, resistance almost invariably develops. Recently, a phenomenon called "phenotype switching" has been identified as an escape route. By switching from a proliferative to an invasive state, melanoma cells can acquire resistance to these targeted therapeutics. Interestingly, phenotype switching bears a striking resemblance to the epithelial-to-mesenchymal-like transition that has been described to occur in cancer stem cells in other tumor types. We propose that these changes are manifestations of one and the same underlying feature, namely a dynamic and reversible phenotypic tumor cell plasticity that renders a proportion of cells both more invasive and resistant to therapy. At the same time, the specific characteristics of these tumor cell populations offer potential for being explored as target for therapeutic intervention.
©2014 American Association for Cancer Research.