MUC1 and MUC4: Switching the emphasis from large to small

Huguette Albrecht, Kermit L Carraway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The MUC1 and MUC4 membrane mucins are each composed of a large alpha (α) and a small beta ( ) subunit. The α subunits are fully exposed at the cell surface and contain variable numbers of repeated amino acid sequences that are heavily glycosylated. In contrast, the subunits are much smaller and are anchored within the cell membrane, with their amino-terminal portions exposed at the cell surface and their carboxy-terminal tails facing the cytosol. Studies over the last several years are challenging the long-held belief that α subunits play the predominant role in cancer by conferring cellular properties that allow tumor cells to evade immune recognition and destruction. Indeed, the subunits of MUC1 and MUC4 have emerged as oncogenes, as they engage signaling pathways responsible for tumor initiation and progression. Thus, a switch in the emphasis from the large α to the small subunits offers attractive possibilities for successful clinical application. Such a focus shift is further supported by the absence of allelic polymorphism and variable glycosylation in the subunit as well as by the presence of the subunit in most MUC1 and MUC4 isoforms expressed by tumors. MUC1α, also known as CA15.3, is a Food and Drug Administration-approved serum biomarker for breast cancer, but its use is no longer recommended by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. However, comparison of subunit expression in normal and malignant breast tissues may offer a novel approach to the exploitation of membrane mucins as biomarkers, as MUC1 -induced gene signatures with prognostic and predictive values in breast cancer have been reported. Preclinical studies with peptides that interfere with MUC1 oncogenic functions also look promising.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)261-271
Number of pages11
JournalCancer Biotherapy and Radiopharmaceuticals
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2011


  • β subunit
  • biomarker
  • breast cancer
  • MUC1
  • MUC4
  • oncogene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research
  • Oncology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Pharmacology


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