Epithelial-mesenchymal transitions in cancer progression

Acta Anat (Basel). 1996;156(3):217-26. doi: 10.1159/000147848.


Epithelial cells are the most important cell type in the development of human malignancies. More than 90% of all malignant tumors are carcinomas, and thus of epithelial origin. Aberrant growth and the ability to invade the underlying tissues are intrinsic properties of the fatally altered cells. Multiple genetic alterations that can influence growth and genetic stability of the carcinoma cells have been characterised during tumor progression. Loss of epithelial morphology and the acquisition of mesenchymal characteristics are typical for carcinoma cells late in tumor progression and correlate with metastatic potential. In vitro, epithelial-mesenchymal transitions can be induced by interference with the integrity of the adherens junction, by signalling via tyrosine kinases, and by oncogene expression. In carcinoma cells, loss or downregulation of E-cadherin expression are frequently observed in carcinomas, and correlate with the malignancy of the tumor. In general, this change in expression is regulated at the transcriptional level. However, tumor types or cell lines exist which show mesenchymal characteristics but nevertheless express E-cadherin protein or mRNA. A more-detailed analysis demonstrated that other mechanisms that interfere with E-cadherin-mediated cell adhesion can be operative. Mutations in the E-cadherin gene and loss or mutation of the second, intact copy as well as mutation in the catenin genes, which encode proteins that interact with the cytoplasmic portion of E-cadherin, can be observed. In addition, transient or unregulated phosphorylation by receptor tyrosine kinases or oncogenic tyrosine kinases, respectively, can interfere with the epithelial morphology and induce a mesenchymal conversion. Since tyrosine phosphorylation of beta-catenin correlates with the epithelial-mesenchymal transition that is observed, E-cadherin-mediated cell adhesion might be modulated by such a mechanism. Interestingly, the same molecules implicated in the control of malignant properties turn out to play fundamental roles in the control of normal epithelial growth, differentiation and morphogenesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cadherins / biosynthesis
  • Carcinoma / pathology
  • Carcinoma / physiopathology*
  • Carcinoma / secondary
  • Disease Progression
  • Epithelium / physiology
  • Epithelium / ultrastructure
  • Hepatocyte Growth Factor / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mesoderm / physiology*
  • Mesoderm / ultrastructure
  • Morphogenesis
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-met
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / physiology


  • Cadherins
  • Hepatocyte Growth Factor
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-met
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases