Distinct point mutations of RET, a tyrosine-kinase receptor encoding gene, are responsible for the inheritance of multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 syndromes (MEN2A and MEN2B) and familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC). In particular, MEN2A is a more complex and aggressive disease than FMTC, being characterized by pheochromocytomas and parathyroid alterations, in addition to medullary thyroid carcinomas. The mutations associated with MEN2A and FMTC affect one of five cysteine residues mapping in the extracellular domain of the Ret protein. However, recent studies have indicated that MEN2A and FMTC disease phenotypes correlate with the position of mutations in RET. Mutations of Cys-634 are more frequent in families with MEN2A, whereas Cys-620 mutations are very rarely found in MEN2A patients and, in contrast, are frequently found in FMTC patients. We have reported previously that mutations of Cys-634 constitutively activate the RET transforming potential by causing a disulfide bridge-mediated homodimerization. Here, we report that the mutation Cys-620→Tyr is able to cause a constitutive dimerization of Ret, with consequent activation of its kinase and transforming activities, to a lower extent than mutation of Cys-634. We suggest that the difference in ability to activate RET shown by mutations associated with FMTC and MEN2A represents the molecular basis of the phenotypic diversity between the two syndromes.

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This study was supported by the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro; by the Progetto Finalizzato, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Applicazioni Cliniche della Ricerca Oncologica, Sottoprogetto 2, Biologia Molecolare; by the Association de Recherche sur le Cancer; and by the Ligue Nationale Contre le Cancer.

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