Therapeutic Targeting of Epithelial Plasticity Programs: Focus on the Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition

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Abstract

Mounting data points to epithelial plasticity programs such as the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) as clinically relevant therapeutic targets for the treatment of malignant tumors. In addition to the widely realized role of EMT in increasing cancer cell invasiveness during cancer metastasis, the EMT has also been implicated in allowing cancer cells to avoid tumor suppressor pathways during early tumorigenesis. In addition, data linking EMT to innate and acquired treatment resistance further points towards the desire to develop pharmacological therapies to target epithelial plasticity in cancer. In this review we organized our discussion on pathways and agents that can be used to target the EMT in cancer into 3 groups: (1) extracellular inducers of EMT, (2) the transcription factors that orchestrate the EMT transcriptome, and (3) the downstream effectors of EMT. We highlight only briefly specific canonical pathways known to be involved in EMT, such as the signal transduction pathways TGFβ, EFGR, and Axl-Gas6. We emphasize in more detail pathways that we believe are emerging novel pathways and therapeutic targets such as epigenetic therapies, glycosylation pathways, and immunotherapy. The heterogeneity of tumors and the dynamic nature of epithelial plasticity in cancer cells make it likely that targeting only 1 EMT-related process will be unsuccessful or only transiently successful. We suggest that with greater understanding of epithelial plasticity regulation, such as with the EMT, a more systematic targeting of multiple EMT regulatory networks will be the best path forward to improve cancer outcomes.

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