Expression of several members of the BCL-2 family of genes was investigated by immunohistochemical methods in 30 primary colorectal adenocarcinomas and 24 adenomatous polyps. When compared to the intensity observed in adjacent normal mucosal epithelial cells, the intensity of Bcl-X immunostaining was elevated in 18 of 30 (60%) carcinomas (P = 0.0001) and 12 of 24 (50%) adenomatous polyps (P = 0.0001). Immunoblot analysis of five pairs of tumors and adjacent normal colonic tissue indicated marked elevations in the relative levels of the anti-apoptotic Bcl-Xl protein in all cases. In contrast to the increased Bcl-X expression, the intensity of Bcl-2 immunostaining was greater than that of normal colonic mucosa in only 3 of 30 (10%) carcinomas and, in fact, was lower than that of adjacent normal epithelial cells in 25 (83%) cases (P = 0.0001). Furthermore, the percentage of Bcl-2 immunopositive cells was generally lower in carcinomas than in adenomas (mean ± SE, 44 ± 6% versus 73 ± 5%, respectively; P = 0.001) and in moderately or poorly differentiated tumors than in well-differentiated tumors (39 ± 6% versus 70 ± 11%, respectively; P = 0.045). In addition, the proportion of tumors in which the Bcl-2 immunointensity was more than or equal to that of normal colonic mucosa was significantly lower in carcinomas than adenomas (5 of 30 versus 15 of 24, respectively; P < 0.001), suggesting that decreases in Bcl-2 expression represent a later event associated with the progression of colorectal cancers. When compared to that of normal adjacent colonic epithelium, the intensity of Mcl-1 immunostaining was reduced in 20 of 30 (67%) of carcinomas (P = 0.0001) compared to only 1 of 24 adenomas, suggesting that decreases in Mcl-1 expression represent a later event associated with progression from a benign to a malignant phenotype or with transition to a less-differentiated state, because most of the carcinomas evaluated here (25 of 30; 83%) were not well differentiated. The intensity of immunostaining for the pro-apoptotic protein Bak was reduced compared to that of normal mucosal epithelial cells in 27 of 30 (90%) carcinomas and 22 of 24 (92%) adenomas, suggesting that reductions in Bak expression occur early in colorectal tumor progression (P = 0.0001). In contrast, the intensity of immunostaining for the proapoptotic protein Bax was not significantly altered in carcinomas; compared to that of normal colonic mucosa, Bax immunointensity was reduced in only 7 of 30 (23%) carcinomas and 3 of 24 (13%) adenomas, and the percentage of Bax immunopositive cells was also not significantly different in any of the histological subgroups. Taken together, these results suggest that expression of Bcl-Xl is increased in undifferentiated primary colorectal cancers, often with accompanying reciprocal decreases in the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2 and Mcl-1 and the pro-apoptotic protein Bak, whereas Bax expression is relatively constant. Thus, a shift from expression of the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-2 and Mcl-1 to the Bcl-Xl protein may occur during progression of colorectal tumors.
Supported in part by Grant CA-60181 from the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. National Dairy Council, and Grants DHP-32E and IRG-177C from the American Cancer Society. J. C. R. is a Scholar of the Leukemia Society of America.