Hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal phenotype(s): The 'fittest' for metastasis?

Biochim Biophys Acta Rev Cancer. 2018 Dec;1870(2):151-157. doi: 10.1016/j.bbcan.2018.07.001. Epub 2018 Jul 8.


Metastasis is the leading cause of mortality among cancer patients. Dissemination enabled by an epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) of carcinoma cells has long been considered to be the predominant mechanism for carcinoma metastasis, based on overexpression studies of many EMT-inducing transcription factors. Individual CTCs - and a binary framework of EMT - have been long considered to be sufficient and necessary condition for metastasis. However, recent studies have shown that collective migration and invasion through tumor buds and clusters of Circulating Tumor Cells (CTCs) as possibly being the prevalent mode of metastasis, although individual CTCs may still contribute to metastasis. These strands and clusters have been proposed to often exhibit a hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal (E/M) phenotype where cells retain epithelial traits of cell-cell adhesion and simultaneously gain mesenchymal characteristics of migration and invasion. To highlight the crucial questions regarding metastasis, we define EMT in a non-binary and context-specific manner, suggest that it can be viewed as a trans-differentiation process, and illustrate the implications of hybrid E/M phenotype(s) and cluster-based dissemination in metastasis.

Keywords: Circulating tumor cells; Collective cell migration; Epithelial-mesenchymal transition; Hybrid epithelial/mesenchymal; Metastasis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Transdifferentiation / physiology
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*
  • Phenotype