One of the foremost problems in the prostate cancer (PCa) field is the inability to distinguish aggressive from indolent disease, which leads to difficult prognoses and thousands of unnecessary surgeries. This limitation stems from the fact that the mechanisms of tumorigenesis in the prostate are poorly understood. Some genetic alterations are commonly reported in prostate tumors, including upregulation of Myc, fusion of Ets genes to androgen-regulated promoters, and loss of Pten. However, the specific roles of these aberrations in tumor initiation and progression are poorly understood. Likewise, the cell of origin for PCa remains controversial and may be linked to the aggressive potential of the tumor. One important clue is that prostate tumors co-express basal and luminal protein markers that are restricted to their distinct cell types in normal tissue. Prostate epithelium contains layer-specific stem cells as well as rare bipotent cells, which can differentiate into basal or luminal cells. We hypothesize that the primary oncogenic cell of origin is a transient-differentiating bipotent cell. Such a cell must maintain tight temporal and spatial control of differentiation pathways, thus increasing its susceptibility for oncogenic disruption. In support of this hypothesis, many of the pathways known to be involved in prostate differentiation can be linked to genes commonly altered in PCa. In this article, we review what is known about important differentiation pathways (Myc, p38MAPK, Notch, PI3K/Pten) in the prostate and how their misregulation could lead to oncogenesis. Better understanding of normal differentiation will offer new insights into tumor initiation and may help explain the functional significance of common genetic alterations seen in PCa. Additionally, this understanding could lead to new methods for classifying prostate tumors based on their differentiation status and may aid in identifying more aggressive tumors.
Front Oncol (Frontiers in Oncology)
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