CD44 is a family of transmembrane glycoproteins that act mainly as a receptor for hyaluronan. It can also bind some other extracellular matrix ligands (chondroitin sulphate, heparan sulphate, fibronectin, serglycin, osteopontin) with lower affinity. CD44 is encoded by a single gene containing 20 exons, 10 of which (v1-v10) are variant exons inserted by alternative splicing. The standard, ubiquitously expressed isoform of CD44, does not contain sequences encoded by these variant exons. Numerous variant isoforms of CD44 containing different combinations of exons v1-v10 inserted into the extracellular domain can be expressed in proliferating epithelial cells and activated lymphocytes. CD44 plays a significant role in lymphocyte homing. Both alternative splicing and glycosylation influence receptor function of the molecule, usually reducing its affinity to hyaluronan. The cytoplasmic domain of CD44 communicates with the cytoskeleton via ankyrin and proteins belonging to the ezrin-moesin-radixin family. Relatively little is known about the intracellular events following interactions of CD44 with its ligands. Some variant isoforms, especially those containing sequences encoded by v6-v10, are overexpressed in both human and animal neoplasms. In a rat pancreatic adenocarcinoma model one of the variant CD44 isoforms was proved to be determinant in the metastatic process. For some human neoplasms (carcinomas of the digestive tract, non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, thyroid carcinomas, and others) correlations have been made between the particular pattern of CD44 variants produced by neoplastic cells and clinicopathological parameters of tumours, such as grade, stage, presence of metastases, and survival. In vitro studies indicate that modifications of CD44 expression result in different ligand recognition and influence cell motility, invasive properties, and metastatic potential of experimental tumours. Investigation of CD44 neoexpression can be useful both in early cancer diagnosis and in predicting tumour behaviour. It can also contribute to better understanding of molecular mechanisms leading to neoplastic transformation.
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