Aberrant activation of the phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase (PI3K)/Akt pathway plays a fundamental role in thyroid tumorigenesis, particularly in follicular thyroid cancer (FTC) and aggressive thyroid cancer, such as anaplastic thyroid cancer (ATC). As the drivers of this process, many genetic alterations activating the PI3K/Akt pathway have been identified in thyroid cancer in recent years.
This review summarizes the current knowledge on major genetic alterations in the PI3K/Akt pathway. These include PIK3CA mutations and genomic amplification/copy gain, Ras mutations, PTEN mutations, RET/PTC and PPARγ/Pax8 rearrangements, as well as amplification/copy gain of PIK3CB, PDK1, Akt, and various receptor tyrosine kinase genes. Most of these genetic alterations are particularly common in FTC and many of them are even more common in ATC; they are generally less common in papillary thyroid cancer (PTC), in which the MAP kinase (MAPK) pathway activated by the BRAF mutation instead plays a major role. Methylation and, thus, epigenetic silencing of PTEN, a major negative regulator of the PI3K/Akt pathway, occurs in close association with activating genetic alterations of the PI3K/Akt pathway, constituting a unique self-enhancement mechanism for this pathway. Many of these genetic alterations are mutually exclusive in differentiated thyroid tumors, but with increasing concurrence from benign tumors to FTC to ATC. RET/PTC, Ras, and receptor tyrosine kinase could dually activate the PI3K/Akt and MAPK pathways. Most cases of ATC harbor genetic alterations in these genes or other genetic combinations that can activate both pathways. It is proposed that genetic alterations in the PI3K/Akt pathway promote thyroid cell transformation to FTC and that genetic alterations in the MAPK pathway promote cell transformation to PTC; accumulation of multiple genetic alterations that can activate both pathways promotes thyroid cancer aggressiveness and progression to ATC.
Genetic alterations are common in the PI3K/Akt pathway in thyroid cancer and play a fundamental role in the tumorigenesis and progression of this cancer. This provides a strong basis for the emerging development of novel genetic-based diagnostic, prognostic, and therapeutic strategies for thyroid cancer.