Expression of E-cadherin repressors SNAIL, ZEB1 and ZEB2 by tumour and stromal cells influences tumour-budding phenotype and suggests heterogeneity of stromal cells in pancreatic cancer

Br J Cancer. 2015 Jun 9;112(12):1944-50. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2015.177. Epub 2015 May 19.


Background: There is evidence that tumour-stroma interactions have a major role in the neoplastic progression of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). Tumour budding is thought to reflect the process of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT); however, the relationship between tumour buds and EMT remains unclear. Here we characterize the tumour-budding- and stromal cells in PDAC at protein and mRNA levels concerning factors involved in EMT.

Methods: mRNA in situ hybridisation and immunostaining for E-cadherin, β-catenin, SNAIL1, ZEB1, ZEB2, N-cadherin and TWIST1 were assessed in the main tumour, tumour buds and tumour stroma on multipunch tissue microarrays from 120 well-characterised PDACs and associated with the clinicopathological features, including peritumoural (PTB) and intratumoural (ITB) budding.

Results: Tumour-budding cells showed increased levels of ZEB1 (P<0.0001) and ZEB2 (P=0.0119) and reduced E-cadherin and β-catenin (P<0.0001, each) compared with the main tumour. Loss of membranous β-catenin in the main tumour (P=0.0009) and tumour buds (P=0.0053), without nuclear translocation, as well as increased SNAIL1 in tumour and stromal cells (P=0.0002, each) correlated with high PTB. ZEB1 overexpression in the main tumour-budding and stromal cells was associated with high ITB (P=0.0084; 0.0250 and 0.0029, respectively) and high PTB (P=0.0005; 0.0392 and 0.0007, respectively). ZEB2 overexpression in stromal cells correlated with higher pT stage (P=0.03), lymphatic invasion (P=0.0172) and lymph node metastasis (P=0.0152).

Conclusions: In the tumour microenvironment of phenotypically aggressive PDAC, tumour-budding cells express EMT hallmarks at protein and mRNA levels underlining their EMT-type character and are surrounded by stromal cells expressing high levels of the E-cadherin repressors ZEB1, ZEB2 and SNAIL1, this being strongly associated with the tumour-budding phenotype. Moreover, our findings suggest the existence of subtypes of stromal cells in PDAC with phenotypical and functional heterogeneity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cadherins / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / pathology*
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition
  • Homeodomain Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics
  • Humans
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Phenotype
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism*
  • Repressor Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors
  • Stromal Cells / pathology*
  • Transcription Factors / biosynthesis*
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Zinc Finger E-box Binding Homeobox 2
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1


  • Cadherins
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Repressor Proteins
  • SNAI1 protein, human
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors
  • Transcription Factors
  • ZEB1 protein, human
  • ZEB2 protein, human
  • Zinc Finger E-box Binding Homeobox 2
  • Zinc Finger E-box-Binding Homeobox 1