Testicular germ cell cancer develops from premalignant intratubular germ cell neoplasia, unclassified cells that are believed to arise from failure of normal maturation of fetal germ cells from gonocytes (OCT4 +/MAGEA4 -)into pre-spermatogonia (OCT4 -/MAGEA4 +). Intratubular germ cell neoplasia cell subpopulations based on stage of germ cell differentiation have been described, however the importance of these subpopulations in terms of invasive potential has not been reported. We hypothesized that cells expressing an immature (OCT4 +/MAGEA4 -) germ cell profile would exhibit an increased proliferation rate compared with those with a mature profile (OCT4 +/MAGEA4 +). Therefore, we performed triple immunofluorescence and stereology to quantify the different intratubular germ cell neoplasia cell subpopulations, based on expression of germ cell (OCT4, PLAP, AP2γ, MAGEA4, VASA) and proliferation (Ki67) markers, in testis sections from patients with preinvasive disease, seminoma, and non-seminoma. We compared these subpopulations with normal human fetal testis and with seminoma cells. Heterogeneity of protein expression was demonstrated in intratubular germ cell neoplasia cells with respect to gonocyte and spermatogonial markers. It included an embryonic/fetal germ cell subpopulation lacking expression of the definitive intratubular germ cell neoplasia marker OCT4, that did not correspond to a physiological (fetal) germ cell subpopulation. OCT4 +/MAGEA4 - cells showed a significantly increased rate of proliferation compared with the OCT4 +/MAGEA4 + population (12.8 versus 3.4%, P<0.0001) irrespective of histological tumor type, reflected in the predominance of OCT4 +/MAGEA4 - cells in the invasive tumor component. Surprisingly, OCT4 +/MAGEA4 - cells in patients with preinvasive disease showed significantly higher proliferation compared to those with seminoma or non-seminoma (18.1 versus 10.2 versus 7.2%, P<0.05, respectively). In conclusion, this study has demonstrated that OCT4 +/MAGEA4 - cells are the most frequent and most proliferative cell population in tubules containing intratubular germ cell neoplasia, which appears to be an important factor in determining invasive potential of intratubular germ cell neoplasia to seminomas.
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We are grateful to Sheila Macpherson for her assistance during the present study and to Ronnie Grant for his assistance with illustrations. The MAGEA4 antibody was a kind gift from Dr Giulio Spagnoli. This study was supported by the Wellcome Trust (Grant Code—098522) and the Medical Research Council (Career Development Fellowship).
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