Dissolution of cell-cell adhesive contacts and increased cell-extracellular matrix adhesion are hallmarks of the migratory and invasive phenotype of cancer cells. These changes are facilitated by growth factor binding to receptor protein tyrosine kinases (RTKs). In normal cells, cell-cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), including some receptor protein tyrosine phosphatases (RPTPs), antagonize RTK signaling by promoting adhesion over migration. In cancer, RTK signaling is constitutive due to mutated or amplified RTKs, which leads to growth factor independence, or autonomy. An alternative route for a tumor cell to achieve autonomy is to inactivate cell-cell CAMs such as RPTPs. RPTPs directly mediate cell adhesion and regulate both cadherin-dependent adhesion and signaling. In addition, RPTPs antagonize RTK signaling by dephosphorylating molecules activated following ligand binding. Both RPTPs and cadherins are downregulated in tumor cells by cleavage at the cell surface. This results in shedding of the extracellular, adhesive segment and displacement of the intracellular segment, altering its subcellular localization and access to substrates or binding partners. In this commentary we discuss the signals that are altered following RPTP and cadherin cleavage to promote cell migration. Tumor cells both step on the gas (RTKs) and disconnect the brakes (RPTPs and cadherins) during their invasive and metastatic journey.
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