When cells from normal human epidermis and from the human squamous cell carcinoma line SCC-13 were seeded on floating rafts of collagen and fibroblasts, they stratified and underwent terminal differentiation. Although the program of differentiation in SCC-13 cells was morphologically abnormal, the cultures resembled normal epidermal raft cultures by expressing the terminal differentiation-specific keratins, K1/K10, and by restricting their proliferative capacity to the basal-like cells of the population. In addition, the differentiating cells of both normal and SCC-13 raft cultures expressed keratins K6 and K16, which are not normally expressed in epidermis, but are synthesized suprabasally during wound-healing and in various epidermal diseases associated with hyperproliferation. While the behavior of normal and SCC-13 rafts was quite similar when they were cultured over normal medium, significant biochemical differences began to emerge when the cultures were exposed to retinoic acid. Most notably, while the SCC-13 cultures still stratified extensively, they showed a marked inhibition of both abnormal (K6/K16) and normal (K1/K10) differentiation-associated keratins, concomitantly with an overall disappearance of differentiated phenotype. Surprisingly, the reduction in K6/K16 in retinoid-treated SCC-13 cultures was not accompanied by a decrease in cell proliferation. Using immunohistochemistry combined with [3H]thymidine labeling, we demonstrate that while the expression of K6 and K16 are often associated with hyperproliferation, these keratins are only produced in the nondividing, differentiating populations of proliferating cultures. Moreover, since their expression can be suppressed without a corresponding decrease in proliferation, the expression of these keratins cannot be essential to the nature of the hyperproliferative epidermal cell.

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