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Generation of phenotypic diversity and progression in metastatic tumor cells

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Summary

The emergence of diversified tumor cell subpopulations in malignant neoplasms accounts for their heterogeneous cellular phenotypes and virtually ensures that some tumor cells will ultimately evolve with the most favorable properties for their enhanced abilities to survive, grow, invade and metastasize (tumor progression). The rates of cellular phenotypic diversification appear to vary greatly among different tumors and within the same tumor, and they are probably controlled, at least in part, by cellular instability due to chromosomal defects and random somatic mutational events, the rates of which are known to be higher in more malignant cells, and by epigenetic events, which may vary widely depending on the nature of the tumor cells and their microenvironments. As tumor progression proceeds, the most malignant cell subpopulations appear to lose their responsiveness to changes in tumor microenvironment while maintaining their high rates of phenotypic diversification.

Tumor and normal cell-cell and cell-extracellular matrix interactions, as well as tumor cell nutrients, oxygen, hormones, growth factors, inducers and other regulatory molecules provide individual malignant cells with microenvironmental signals that could act through epigenetic cellular modifications, such as DNA methylation, and transcriptional, posttranscriptional, translational and posttranslational controls, or combinations of these. In addition, integration of viral gene sequences or viral modification of host DNA in critical regions could affect phenotypic stability. Finally, manipulation of tumor cells by antitumor therapy can also have profound effects on the rates of phenotypic diversification of the surviving tumor cells.

A model for generating cellular phenotypic diversity based on the proposed mechanism for rapid generation of immunoglobulin molecular diversity in B cells may be applicable to malignant cells and to cells in general. In this model the expression and activity of gene products from multigene families are affected by a variety of genetic and epigenetic controlling mechanisms, and alterations in regulatory genes caused by recombination, methylation, mutation, or other changes could lead to differences in gene expression, resulting in widespread quantitative (and perhaps some qualitative) changes in particular gene products or their activities. As they proceed down different pathways of gene expression, each cell would be exposed to continual host selection pressures creating diverse, ever-changing malignant cell-populations.

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Nicolson, G.L. Generation of phenotypic diversity and progression in metastatic tumor cells. Cancer Metast Rev 3, 25–42 (1984). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00047691

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