Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Human cancer cells express Slug-based epithelial-mesenchymal transition gene expression signature obtained in vivo

Dimitris Anastassiou26*, Viktoria Rumjantseva6, Weiyi Cheng26, Jianzhong Huang6, Peter D Canoll3, Darrell J Yamashiro135 and Jessica J Kandel145*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Cancer Genetics, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

2 Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

3 Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

4 Department of Surgery, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

5 Department of Pediatrics, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

6 Department of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:529  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-529

Published: 30 December 2011



The biological mechanisms underlying cancer cell motility and invasiveness remain unclear, although it has been hypothesized that they involve some type of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT).


We used xenograft models of human cancer cells in immunocompromised mice, profiling the harvested tumors separately with species-specific probes and computationally analyzing the results.


Here we show that human cancer cells express in vivo a precise multi-cancer invasion-associated gene expression signature that prominently includes many EMT markers, among them the transcription factor Slug, fibronectin, and α-SMA. We found that human, but not mouse, cells express the signature and Slug is the only upregulated EMT-inducing transcription factor. The signature is also present in samples from many publicly available cancer gene expression datasets, suggesting that it is produced by the cancer cells themselves in multiple cancer types, including nonepithelial cancers such as neuroblastoma. Furthermore, we found that the presence of the signature in human xenografted cells was associated with a downregulation of adipocyte markers in the mouse tissue adjacent to the invasive tumor, suggesting that the signature is triggered by contextual microenvironmental interactions when the cancer cells encounter adipocytes, as previously reported.


The known, precise and consistent gene composition of this cancer mesenchymal transition signature, particularly when combined with simultaneous analysis of the adjacent microenvironment, provides unique opportunities for shedding light on the underlying mechanisms of cancer invasiveness as well as identifying potential diagnostic markers and targets for metastasis-inhibiting therapeutics.

Epithelial-mesenchymal transition; Cancer stem cells; Cancer invasiveness