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Adrenergic differentiation and Ret expression in rat pheochromocytomas.

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  1. Department of Pathology, Tufts-New England Medical Center, Boston, MA 02111, USA.


Pheochromocytomas are catecholamine-producing tumors of the adult adrenal medulla. They are rare in humans and most other species but common in laboratory rats. However, the relevance of rat pheochromocytomas as a model for their human counterparts is uncertain. Previous studies of spontaneous and drug-induced rat pheochromocytomas and the PC12 pheochromocytoma cell line suggested a distinctive noradrenergic phenotype, possibly reflecting origin from a progenitor not present in the adult human adrenal. In this study, we studied 31 pheochromocytomas derived from test and control male and female rats in toxicologic studies for expression of the epinephrine-synthesizing enzyme phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PNMT) and the receptor tyrosine kinase Ret. PNMT, which defines adrenergic chromaffin cells, is frequently expressed in human pheochromocytomas, often in tumors that also overexpress RET. We also tested for the expression of the cell cycle checkpoint protein p27(Kip1), which recently was reported absent in pheochromocytomas from a strain of rats with a hereditary mixed multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN)-like syndrome. Using immunoblots, we demonstrated PNMT expression in almost 50% of the 31 tumors, although often at lower levels than in normal rat adrenal medulla. The majority of tumors overexpressed Ret. There was no apparent correlation between PNMT and Ret. However, in this study, PNMT expression was strongly associated with tumors arising in female rats, while overexpression of Ret did not show a sex predilection. Robust expression of p27(Kip1) was seen in all tumors from the toxicologic studies and also in a small sample of pheochromocytomas from Long-Evans rats, which were reported to have a mixed MEN-like syndrome in the 1980s. The present results show that rat pheochromocytomas have greater phenotypic diversity than previously believed and greater similarity to their human counterparts with respect to these two important markers. Loss of p27(Kip1) does not appear to account for the high frequency of pheochromocytomas in commonly utilized rat strains.

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