From shape-shifting embryonic cells to oncology: The fascinating history of epithelial mesenchymal transition

Semin Cancer Biol. 2023 Nov:96:100-114. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2023.10.003. Epub 2023 Oct 16.


Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition or transformation (EMT) is a cell shape-changing process that is utilized repeatedly throughout embryogenesis and is critical to the attainment of a precise body plan. In the adult, EMT is observed under both normal and pathological conditions, such as during normal wounding healing, during development of certain fibrotic states and vascular anomalies, as well as in some cancers when malignant cells progress to become more aggressive, invasive, and metastatic. Epithelia derived from any of the three embryonic germ layers can undergo EMT, including those derived from mesoderm, such as endothelial cells (sometimes termed Endo-MT) and those derived from endoderm such as fetal liver stroma. At the cellular level, EMT is defined as the transformation of epithelial cells towards a mesenchymal phenotype and is marked by attenuation of expression of epithelial markers and de novo expression of mesenchymal markers. This process is induced by extracellular factors and can be reversible, resulting in mesenchymal-to-epithelial transformation (MET). It is now clear that a cell can simultaneously express properties of both epithelia and mesenchyme, and that such transitional cell-types drive tumor cell heterogeneity, an important aspect of cancer progression, development of a stem-like cell state, and drug resistance. Here we review some of the earliest studies demonstrating the existence of EMT during embryogenesis and discuss the discovery of the extracellular factors and intracellular signaling pathways that contribute to this process, with components of the TGFβ signaling superfamily playing a prominent role. We mention early controversies surrounding in vivo EMT during embryonic development and in adult diseased states, and the maturation of the field to a stage wherein targeting EMT to control disease states is an aspirational goal.

Keywords: Cancer; Drug resistance; Embryo; Epithelial mesenchymal transition; History; Stem cell.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Embryonic Development / genetics
  • Endothelial Cells
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition* / genetics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Pregnancy