Loss of epithelial markers is an early event in oral dysplasia and is observed within the safety margin of dysplastic and T1 OSCC biopsies

Zahra Abdalla, Tanya Walsh, Nalin Thakker, Christopher M. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is a highly aggressive cancer that is associated with poor 5-year patient survival. Disease treatment is further compounded by the difficulty in predicting pre-cancerous tissues that will progress to OSCC and the high recurrence rates following surgical resection. Here we have assessed expression of the oral epithelial markers E-cadherin, EMP1 and 5T4 and the pro-invasive N-cadherin proteins using fully characterised antibodies and quantitative immunofluorescence microscopy in normal tissue (NT), fibroepithelial polyp (FEP), low-grade dysplasia (LGD), high-grade dysplasia (HGD), T1 OSCC and T4 OSCC biopsies. Decreased E-cadherin expression was associated with FEP, LGD and HGD biopsies, demonstrating that loss of E-cadherin is an early event within abnormal epithelium and occurs in the absence of an E- to N-cadherin switch, the latter of which was only observed in T4 OSCC. Furthermore, loss of E-cadherin and EMP1 is an indicator of LGD (p = 0.0006) and loss of E-cadherin, EMP1 and 5T4 an indicator of HGD (p = 0.0006). Expression patterns of E-cadherin, EMP1 and N-cadherin could predict abnormal epithelium in LGD, HGD, T1 and T4 OSCC biopsies (z-value = 0 for all disease grades) and allowed classification of LGD (z = 1.47), HGD (z = 2.138), T1 (z = 1.05) and T4 OSCC (z = 1.49) biopsies. Therefore, these markers provide a useful means to predict abnormal epithelium in patient biopsies. Linear regression and coefficient of determination analysis revealed positive correlation with a NT>LGD>HGD disease transition but low correlation with a putative HGD>T1 OSCC>T4 OSCC disease transition. Furthermore, expression of E-cadherin, EMP1, 5T4 and N-cadherin in pathologically normal surgical safety margins of LGD, HGD and T1 OSCC patient biopsies revealed significant differences to NT and the use of safety margins or FEP as ‘normal tissue’ controls introduced Type II errors in all patient cohorts. This work forms the basis for further investigation of the role of E-cadherin loss in abnormal epithelium and in the development of automated analyses for use in cancer diagnostics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0187449
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number12
Early online date7 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2017


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