Controversies around epithelial–mesenchymal plasticity in cancer metastasis

Elizabeth D. Williams, Dingcheng Gao, Andrew Redfern, Erik W. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

217 Citations (Scopus)


Experimental evidence accumulated over decades has implicated epithelial–mesenchymal plasticity (EMP), which collectively encompasses epithelial–mesenchymal transition and the reverse process of mesenchymal–epithelial transition, in tumour metastasis, cancer stem cell generation and maintenance, and therapeutic resistance. However, the dynamic nature of EMP processes, the apparent need to reverse mesenchymal changes for the development of macrometastases and the likelihood that only minor cancer cell subpopulations exhibit EMP at any one time have made such evidence difficult to accrue in the clinical setting. In this Perspectives article, we outline the existing preclinical and clinical evidence for EMP and reflect on recent controversies, including the failure of initial lineage-tracing experiments to confirm a major role for EMP in dissemination, and discuss accumulating data suggesting that epithelial features and/or a hybrid epithelial–mesenchymal phenotype are important in metastasis. We also highlight strategies to address the complexities of therapeutically targeting the EMP process that give consideration to its spatially and temporally divergent roles in metastasis, with the view that this will yield a potent and broad class of therapeutic agents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)716-732
Number of pages17
JournalNature Reviews Cancer
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


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