Epithelial-mesenchymal transition in undifferentiated carcinoma of the pancreas with and without osteoclast-like giant cells

Virchows Arch. 2021 Feb;478(2):319-326. doi: 10.1007/s00428-020-02889-3. Epub 2020 Jul 13.


Undifferentiated carcinoma (UC) and undifferentiated carcinoma with osteoclast-like giant cells (UCOGC) are peculiar variants of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), characterized by hypercellularity and absence of glandular patterns. The inflammatory microenvironment is peculiar in UCOGC, since it is dominated by macrophages and osteoclast-like giant cells. However, from a molecular point of view, both UC and UCOGC are very similar to conventional PDAC, sharing alterations of the most common genetic drivers. Clinically, UC usually show a worse prognosis, whereas UCOGC may show a better prognosis if it is not associated with a PDAC component. To highlight potential biological differences between these entities, we investigated the role of the epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) in UC and UCOGC. Specifically, we analyzed the immunohistochemical expression of three well-known EMT markers, namely Twist1, Snai2, and E-cadherin, in 16 cases of UCOGC and 10 cases of UC. We found that EMT is more frequently activated in UC (10/10 cases) than in UCOGC (8/16 cases; p = 0.05). Furthermore, in UCOGC, EMT was activated with a higher frequency in cases with an associated PDAC component. Snai2 was the most frequently and strongly expressed marker in both tumor types (10/10 UC, 8/16 UCOGC), and its expression was higher in UC than in UCOGC (mean immunohistochemical score: 4.8 in UC vs. 2.1 in UCOGC, p < 0.01). Our results shed new light on the biology of UC and UCOGC: EMT appeared as a more important process in UC, and Snai2 emerged as a central EMT effector in this setting.

Keywords: EMT; Osteoclast; Pancreatic cancer; Snai2; Twist1; Undifferentiated.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, CD / analysis
  • Baltimore
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis
  • Cadherins / analysis
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Italy
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Nuclear Proteins / analysis
  • Osteoclasts / chemistry
  • Osteoclasts / pathology*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / therapy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors / analysis
  • Twist-Related Protein 1 / analysis


  • Antigens, CD
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CDH1 protein, human
  • Cadherins
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • SNAI2 protein, human
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors
  • TWIST1 protein, human
  • Twist-Related Protein 1