AIMS: Compelling evidence from cell culture studies implicates cadherins in the neoplastic progression of melanocytic tumours but few reports describe the expression of cadherins and the related transmembrane proteins, catenins, in a full range of benign and malignant excised melanocytic tumours. METHODS: Using immunohistochemistry and western blotting after tissue fractionation, the pattern of expression of cadherins/catenins was studied in a range of surgically excised melanocytic tumours, from dysplastic naevi to stage III cutaneous metastatic malignant melanoma. RESULTS: Appropriate membranous expression of E-cadherins and P-cadherins is seen in dysplastic naevocytes with an epithelioid phenotype and is largely maintained with malignant transformation to radial growth phase melanoma and primary vertical growth phase malignant melanoma. Loss of membranous E-cadherin is seen in a small number of vertical growth phase melanomas only when metastasis has occurred. However, there is a concomitant dramatic loss of membranous P-cadherin expression in all melanomas at the same stage. A minority of metastatic melanomas show de novo membranous N-cadherin expression in comparison with dysplastic naevi and primary melanoma. Membranous expression of the desmosomal cadherin, desmoglein, was not seen in any tumour studied. Frequently, beta catenin is aberrantly produced in the cytoplasm of cells in dysplastic naevi and metastatic malignant melanoma, with an implied compromise to adhesive function. Furthermore, membranous gamma catenin expression was not seen in any of the 70 melanocytic tumours studied, implying obligatory transmembrane binding of cadherins to beta catenin for maintenance of adhesive function. CONCLUSIONS: The most important alterations in membranous cadherin and catenin expression are seen late in the biological progression of melanocytic tumours at the stage of "in transit" or regional lymph node metastasis, with implications for tumour growth, invasion, and dissemination.
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