Esophagin is a member of the small proline-rich protein family of cell envelope precursor proteins, which are expressed during squamous cell differentiation. Esophagin is expressed at high levels in normal esophageal epithelium, but its expression is absent from esophageal squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas. Moreover, loss of esophagin expression is present in areas of dysplasia or normal mucosa adjacent to carcinomas, suggesting that absence of esophagin may constitute a harbinger of early esophageal malignant transformation. A greater understanding of transcriptional control of esophagin may provide valuable insights into esophageal malignancy. Therefore, this study was undertaken in order to isolate and carry out initial characterization of a functional promoter for esophagin. A genomic clone containing esophagin was isolated and sequenced, including 2.7 kb of the esophagin promoter region. Esophagin expression was studied in response to various treatments of primary cultured human esophageal epithelial cells and squamous cell carcinoma cell lines. Calcium was the strongest inducer of the endogenous esophagin promoter, with induction occurring at 12-72 hours. In primary cultured esophageal epithelial cells, a region spanning 116 bp upstream of the transcriptional start site to 45 bp downstream was sufficient to direct low, basal, in vitro esophagin expression. However, responsiveness of primary esophageal cells to calcium required inclusion of promoter elements 1688 bp upstream of the transcriptional start site. Site-directed mutagenesis studies suggested a putative role for C/EBP-β, OCT-1, and OCT-3 transcription factor binding sites in the minimal promoter region. In conjunction with published human in vivo studies, these data support the hypothesis that esophagin is a biomarker of esophageal squamous cell differentiation and provide an in vitro model to evaluate regulatory factors involved in this differentiation process.
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