Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a critical multistep process that converts epithelial cells to more motile and invasive mesenchymal cells, contributing to body patterning and morphogenesis during embryonic development. In addition, both epithelial plasticity and increased motility and invasiveness are essential for the branching morphogenesis that occurs during development of the mammary gland and during tumor formation, allowing cancer cells to escape from the primary tumor. Cripto-1, a member of the epidermal growth factor-Cripto-1/FRL-1/Cryptic (EGF/CFC) gene family, together with the transforming growth factor (TGF)-β family ligand Nodal, regulates both cell movement and EMT during embryonic development. During postnatal development, Cripto-1 regulates the branching morphogenesis of the mouse mammary gland and enhances both the invasive and migratory properties of mammary epithelial cells in vitro. Furthermore, transgenic mouse models have shown that Cripto-1 promotes the formation of mammary tumors that display properties of EMT, including the down-regulation of the cell surface adherens junctional protein E-cadherin and the up-regulation of mesenchymal markers, such as vimentin, N-cadherin, and Snail. Interestingly, Cripto-1 is enriched in a subpopulation of embryonal, melanoma, prostate, and pancreatic cancer cells that possess stem-like characteristics. Therefore, Cripto-1 may play a role during developmental EMT, and it may also be involved in the reprogramming of differentiated tumor cells into cancer stem cells through the induction of an EMT program.
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