A recently described splice variant of CD44 expressed in metastasizing cell lines of rat tumors has been shown to confer metastatic potential to a non-metastasizing rat pancreatic carcinoma cell line and to non-metastasizing sarcoma cells. Homologues of this variant as well as several other CD44 splice variants are also expressed at the RNA level in human carcinoma cell lines from lung, breast, and colon, and in immortalized keratinocytes. Using antibodies raised against a bacterial fusion protein encoded by variant CD44 sequences, we studied the expression of variant CD44 glycoproteins in normal human tissues and in colorectal neoplasia. Expression of CD44 variant proteins in normal human tissues was readily found on several epithelial tissues including the squamous epithelia of the epidermis, tonsils, and pharynx, and the glandular epithelium of the pancreatic ducts, but was largely absent from other epithelia and from most non-epithelial cells and tissues. In human colorectal neoplasia CD44 variant proteins, including homologues of those which confer metastatic ability to rat tumors, were found on all invasive carcinomas and carcinoma metastases. Interestingly, focal expression was also observed in adenomatous polyps, expression being related to areas of dysplasia. The distribution of the CD44 variants in human tissues suggests that they play a role in a few restricted differentiation pathways and that in colorectal tumors one of these pathways has been reactivated. The finding that metastasis-related variants are already expressed at a relatively early stage in colorectal carcinogenesis and tumor progression, i.e., in adenomatous polyps, suggests the existence of a yet unknown selective advantage linked to CD44 variant expression. The continued expression in metastases would be compatible with a role in the metastatic process.

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