Role of intermediate filaments in migration, invasion and metastasis

Cancer Metastasis Rev. 1996 Dec;15(4):507-25. doi: 10.1007/BF00054016.


The expression of intermediate filament proteins is remarkably tissue-specific which suggests that the intermediate filament (IF) type(s) present in cells is somehow related to their biological function. However, in some cancers-particularly malignant melanoma and breast carcinoma, there is a strong indication that vimentin and keratin IFs are coexpressed, thus presenting as a dedifferentiated or interconverted (between epithelial and mesenchymal) phenotype. In this review, two in vitro models are presented which recapitulate the interconverted phenotype in human melanoma and breast carcinoma, and allow, for the first time, unique observations to be made with respect to the role of IFs in cancer progression. These studies have provided direct evidence linking overexpression of keratin IFs in human melanoma with increased migratory and invasive activity in vitro, which can be down-regulated by substituting dominant-negative keratin mutants. Overexpression of vimentin IFs in the breast carcinoma model leads to augmentation of motility and invasiveness in vitro, which can be transiently down-regulated by treatment with antisense oligonucleotides to vimentin. Additional experimental evidence suggests that the mechanism(s) responsible for the differential expression of metastatic properties associated with the interconverted phenotype rest(s) in the unique interaction, either direct or indirect, of IFs with specific integrins interacting with the extracellular matrix. In this review, we discuss the observations derived from the human melanoma and breast carcinoma models to address the hypothesis that the ability to coexpress vimentin and keratins confers a selective advantage to tumor cells in their interpretation of and response to signaling cues from the extracellular matrix. The ramifications of these observations are discussed with respect to the patholophysiology of the respective in situ tumors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Movement / physiology
  • Humans
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / metabolism
  • Intermediate Filament Proteins / physiology
  • Intermediate Filaments / metabolism
  • Intermediate Filaments / physiology*
  • Melanoma / metabolism
  • Melanoma / pathology*
  • Melanoma / secondary
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis


  • Intermediate Filament Proteins