Background: β-catenin activation plays a crucial role for tumourigenesis in the large intestine but except for Lynch syndrome (LS) associated cancers stabilizing mutations of β-catenin gene (CTNNB1) are rare in colorectal cancer (CRC). Previous animal studies provide an explanation for this observation. They showed that CTNNB1 mutations induced transformation in the colon only when CTNNB1 was homozygously mutated or when membranous β-catenin binding was hampered by E-cadherin haploinsufficiency. We were interested, if these mechanisms are also found in human CTNNB1 mutated CRCs.
Results: Among 869 CRCs stabilizing CTNNB1 mutations were found in 27 cases. Homo- or hemizygous CTNNB1 mutations were detected in 74% of CTNNB1 mutated CRCs (13 microsatellite instabile (MSI-H), 7 microsatellite stabile (MSS)) but only in 3% (1/33) of extracolonic CTNNB1 mutated cancers. In contrast to MSS CRC, CTNNB1 mutations at codon 41 or 45 were highly selected in MSI-H CRC. Of the examined three CRC cell lines, β-catenin and E-cadherin expression was similar in cell lines without or with hetereozygous CTNNB1 mutations (DLD1 and HCT116), while a reduced E-cadherin expression combined with cytoplasmic accumulation of β-catenin was found in a cell line with homozygous CTNNB1 mutation (LS180). Reduced expression of E-cadherin in human MSI-H CRC tissue was identified in 60% of investigated cancers, but no association with the CTNNB1 mutational status was found.
Conclusions: In conclusion, this study shows that in contrast to extracolonic cancers stabilizing CTNNB1 mutations in CRC are commonly homo- or hemizygous indicating a higher threshold of β-catenin stabilization to be required for transformation in the colon as compared to extracolonic sites. Moreover, we found different mutational hotspots in CTNNB1 for MSI-H and MSS CRCs suggesting a selection of different effects on β-catenin stabilization according to the molecular pathway of tumourigenesis. Reduced E-cadherin expression in CRC may further contribute to higher levels of transcriptionally active β-catenin, but it is not directly linked to the CTNNB1 mutational status.