Functional implications of the dynamic regulation of EpCAM during epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition

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Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) is a transmembrane glycoprotein expressed in epithelial tissues. EpCAM forms intercellular, homophilic adhesions, modulates epithelial junctional protein complex formation, and promotes epithelial tissue homeostasis. EpCAM is a target of molecular therapies and plays a prominent role in tumor biology. In this review, we focus on the dynamic regulation of EpCAM expression during epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and the functional implications of EpCAM expression on the regulation of EMT. EpCAM is frequently and highly expressed in epithelial cancers, while silenced in mesenchymal cancers. During EMT, EpCAM expression is downregulated by extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK) and EMT transcription factors, as well as by regulated intramembrane proteolysis (RIP). The functional impact of EpCAM expression on tumor biology is frequently dependent on the cancer type and predominant oncogenic signaling pathways, suggesting that the role of EpCAM in tumor biology and EMT is multifunctional. Membrane EpCAM is cleaved in cancers and its intracellular domain (EpICD) is transported into the nucleus and binds β-catenin, FHL2, and LEF1. This stimulates gene transcription that promotes growth, cancer stem cell properties, and EMT. EpCAM is also regulated by epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling and the EpCAM ectoderm (EpEX) is an EGFR ligand that affects EMT. EpCAM is expressed on circulating tumor and cancer stem cells undergoing EMT and modulates metastases and cancer treatment responses. Future research exploring EpCAM’s role in EMT may reveal additional therapeutic opportunities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number956
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Cancer stem cells (CSCs)
  • Circulating tumor cells (CTCs)
  • Epithelial cancers
  • Epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM)
  • Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT)
  • Metastasis


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