The development of metastatic melanoma is thought to require the dynamic shifting of neoplastic cells between proliferative and invasive phenotypes. Contrary to this conventional “phenotype switching” model, we now show that disease progression can involve malignant melanoma cells simultaneously displaying proliferative and invasive properties. Using a genetic mouse model of melanoma in combination with in vitro analyses of melanoma cell lines, we found that conditional deletion of the downstream signaling molecule Smad4, which abrogates all canonical TGF-β signaling, indeed inhibited both tumor growth and metastasis. Conditional deletion of the inhibitory signaling factor Smad7, however, generated cells that are both highly invasive and proliferative, indicating that invasiveness is compatible with a high proliferation rate. In fact, conditional Smad7 deletion led to sustained melanoma growth and at the same time promoted massive metastasis formation, a result consistent with data indicating that low SMAD7 levels in patient tumors are associated with a poor survival. Our findings reveal that modulation of SMAD7 levels can overcome the need for phenotype switching during tumor progression and may thus represent a therapeutic target in metastatic disease.
Eylul Tuncer, Raquel R. Calçada, Daniel Zingg, Sandra Varum, Phil Cheng, Sandra N. Freiberger, Chu-Xia Deng, Ingo Kleiter, Mitchell P. Levesque, Reinhard Dummer, Lukas Sommer