Journal of Molecular Histology

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 211-231

First online:

CD44 in Cancer Progression: Adhesion, Migration and Growth Regulation

  • R. MarhabaAffiliated withDepartment of Tumor Progression and Immune Defense, German Cancer Research Center
  • , M. ZöllerAffiliated withDepartment of Tumor Progression and Immune Defense, German Cancer Research CenterDepartment of Applied Genetics, University of Karlsruhe

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It is well established that the large array of functions that a tumour cell has to fulfil to settle as a metastasis in a distant organ requires cooperative activities between the tumour and the surrounding tissue and that several classes of molecules are involved, such as cell–cell and cell–matrix adhesion molecules and matrix degrading enzymes, to name only a few. Furthermore, metastasis formation requires concerted activities between tumour cells and surrounding cells as well as matrix elements and possibly concerted activities between individual molecules of the tumour cell itself.

Adhesion molecules have originally been thought to be essential for the formation of multicellular organisms and to tether cells to the extracellular matrix or to neighbouring cells. CD44 transmembrane glycoproteins belong to the families of adhesion molecules and have originally been described to mediate lymphocyte homing to peripheral lymphoid tissues. It was soon recognized that the molecules, under selective conditions, may suffice to initiate metastatic spread of tumour cells. The question remained as to how a single adhesion molecule can fulfil that task.

This review outlines that adhesion is by no means a passive task. Rather, ligand binding, as exemplified for CD44 and other similar adhesion molecules, initiates a cascade of events that can be started by adherence to the extracellular matrix. This leads to activation of the molecule itself, binding to additional ligands, such as growth factors and matrix degrading enzymes, complex formation with additional transmembrane molecules and association with cytoskeletal elements and signal transducing molecules. Thus, through the interplay of CD44 with its ligands and associating molecules CD44 modulates adhesiveness, motility, matrix degradation, proliferation and cell survival, features that together may well allow a tumour cell to proceed through all steps of the metastatic cascade.