Squamous carcinomas of both human and rodent origin can undergo a transition to a more invasive, metastatic phenotype involving reorganization of the cytoskeleton, loss of cell adhesion molecules such as E-cadherin and acquisition of a fibroblastoid or spindle cell morphology. We have developed a series of cell lines from mouse skin tumors which represent different stages of carcinogenesis, including benign papillomas, and clonally related squamous and spindle carcinomas derived from the same primary tumor. Some spindle cells continue to express keratins, but with a poorly organized keratin filament network, whereas in others no keratin expression is detectable. All of the spindle cells lack expression of the cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin and the desmosomal component desmoplakin. Loss of these cell surface proteins therefore appears to precede the destabilization of the keratin network. At the genetic level, it is not known whether such changes involve activation of dominantly acting oncogenes or loss of a suppressor function which controls epithelial differentiation. To examine this question, we have carried out a series of fusion experiments between a highly malignant mouse skin spindle cell carcinoma and cell lines derived from premalignant or malignant mouse skin tumors, including both squamous and spindle carcinoma variants. The results show that the spindle cell phenotype as determined by cell morphology and lack of expression of keratin, E-cadherin, and desmoplakin proteins, is recessive in all hybrids with squamous cells. The hybrids expressed all of these differentiation markers, and showed suppression of tumorigenicity to a variable level dependent upon the tumorigenic properties of the less malignant fusion partner. Our results suggest that acquisition of the spindle cell phenotype involves functional loss of a gene(s) which controls epithelial differentiation.

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