Partial EMT in head and neck cancer biology: a spectrum instead of a switch

Ananya Pal, Thomas F. Barrett, Rachel Paolini, Anuraag Parikh, Sidharth V. Puram

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Our understanding of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) has slowly evolved from a simple two state, binary model to a multi-step, dynamic continuum of epithelial-to-mesenchymal plasticity, with metastable intermediate transition states that may drive cancer metastasis. Head and neck cancer is no exception, and in this review, we use head and neck as a case study for how partial-EMT (p-EMT) cell states may play an important role in cancer progression. In particular, we summarize recent in vitro and in vivo studies that uncover these intermediate transition states, which exhibit both epithelial and mesenchymal properties and appear to have distinct advantages in migration, survival in the bloodstream, and seeding and propagation within secondary metastatic sites. We then summarize the common and distinct regulators of p-EMT as well as methodologies for identifying this unique cellular subpopulation, with a specific emphasis on the role of cutting-edge technologies, such as single cell approaches. Finally, we propose strategies to target p-EMT cells, highlighting potential opportunities for therapeutic intervention to specifically target the process of metastasis. Thus, although significant challenges remain, including numerous gaps in current knowledge, a deeper understanding of EMT plasticity and a genuine identification of EMT as spectrum rather than a switch will be critical for improving patient diagnosis and treatment across oncology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5049-5065
Number of pages17
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 12 2021


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