Background: Colorectal carcinogenesis is believed to be a multi-stage process that originates with a localized adenoma, which linearly progresses to an intra-mucosal carcinoma, to an invasive lesion, and finally to metastatic cancer. This progression model is supported by tissue culture and animal model studies, but it is difficult to reconcile with several well-established observations, principally among these are that up to 25% of early stage (Stage I/II), node-negative colorectal cancer (CRC) develop distant metastasis, and that circulating CRC cells are undetectable in peripheral blood samples of up to 50% of patients with confirmed metastasis, but more than 30% of patients with no detectable metastasis exhibit such cells. The mechanism responsible for this diverse behavior is unknown, and there are no effective means to identify patients with pending, or who are at high risk for, developing metastatic CRC.
Novel findings: Our previous studies of human breast and prostate cancer have shown that cancer invasion arises from the convergence of a tissue injury, the innate immune response to that injury, and the presence of tumor stem cells within tumor capsules at the site of the injury. Focal degeneration of a capsule due to age or disease attracts lymphocyte infiltration that degrades the degenerating capsules resulting in the formation of a focal disruption in the capsule, which selectively favors proliferating or “budding” of the underlying tumor stem cells. Our recent studies suggest that lymphocyte infiltration also triggers metastasis by disrupting the intercellular junctions and surface adhesion molecules within the proliferating cell buds causing their dissociation. Then, lymphocytes and tumor cells are conjoined through membrane fusion to form tumor-lymphocyte chimeras (TLCs) that allows the tumor stem cell to avail itself of the lymphocyte's natural ability to migrate and breach cell barriers in order to intravasate and to travel to distant organs. Our most recent studies of human CRC have detected nearly identical focal capsule disruptions, lymphocyte infiltration, budding cells, and the formation of TLCs. Our studies have further shown that age- and type-matched node-positive and -negative CRC have a significantly different morphological and immunohistochemical profile and that the majority of lymphatic ducts with disseminated cells are located within the mucosa adjacent to morphologically normal appearing epithelial structures that express a stem cell-related marker.
New hypothesis: Based on these findings and the growth patterns of budding cells revealed by double immunohistochemistry, we further hypothesize that metastatic spread is an early event of carcinogenesis and that budding cells overlying focal capsule disruptions represent invasion- and metastasis-initiating cells that follow one of four pathways to progress: (1) to undergo extensive in situ proliferation leading to the formation of tumor nests that subsequently invade the submucosa, (2) to migrate with associated lymphocytes functioning as “seeds” to grow in new sites, (3) to migrate and intravasate into pre-existing vascular structures by forming TLCs, or (4) to intravasate into vascular structures that are generated by the budding cells themselves. We also propose that only node-positive cases harbor stem cells with the potential for multi-lineage differentiation and unique surface markers that permit intravasation.