Background: Invasive growth of epithelial tumor cells, a major cause of death from cancer in humans, involves loss of epithelial polarity and dedifferentiation. Transforming growth factor beta (TGFbeta) is regarded as a major tumor suppressor during early tumor development because it inhibits cell-cycle progression and tumor growth. Many dedifferentiated, late-stage tumors are resistant to growth inhibition by TGFbeta, however, and even secrete TGFbeta. In line with this, TGFbeta is involved in angiogenesis, wound healing and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) during development. Ha-Ras-transformed mammary epithelial cells (EpRas) undergo TGFbeta-induced EMT maintained via a TGFbeta autocrine loop. Thus, we have analyzed whether signal transduction by the TGFbeta receptor (TGFbetaR) is required for local tumor cell invasion and metastasis.
Results: A dominant-negative type II TGFbetaR (TGFbetaRII-dn) was expressed using retroviral vectors in EpRas cells and highly metastatic mesenchymal mouse colon carcinoma cells (CT26). In both cell types, TGFbetaRII-dn blocked TGFbetaR signaling and heavily delayed tumor formation. In EpRas cells, TGFbetaRII-dn prevented EMT. In the dedifferentiated mesenchymal CT26 cells, TGFbetaRII-dn caused mesenchymal-to-epithelial transition and inhibited their in vitro invasiveness in several assays. In addition, TGFbetaRII-dn completely abolished metastasis formation by CT26 cells. Furthermore, several human carcinoma lines lost in vitro invasiveness when treated with neutralizing TGFbeta antibodies or soluble receptor variants. Finally, human colon carcinoma cells (hnPCC) expressing a mutated, non-functional TGFbetaRII were non-invasive in vitro, a defect restored by re-expressing wild-type TGFbetaRII.
Conclusions: Cell-autonomous TGFbeta signaling is required for both induction and maintenance of in vitro invasiveness and metastasis during late-stage tumorigenesis. TGFbetaRII therefore represents a potential target for therapeutical intervention in human tumorigenesis.