Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) has been well recognized for its essential role in cancer progression as well as normal tissue development. In cancer cells, activation of EMT permits the cells to acquire migratory and invasive abilities and stem-like properties. However, simple categorization of cancer cells into epithelial and mesenchymal phenotypes misleads the understanding of the complicated metastatic process, and contradictory results from different studies also indicate the limitation of application of EMT theory in cancer metastasis. Nowadays, growing evidence suggests the existence of an intermediate status between epithelial and mesenchymal phenotypes, i.e., the “hybrid epithelial-mesenchymal (hybrid E/M)” state, provides a possible explanation for those conflicting results. Appearance of hybrid E/M phenotype offers a more plastic status for cancer cells to adapt the stressful environment for proceeding metastasis. In this article, we review the biological importance of the dynamic changes between the epithelial and the mesenchymal states. The regulatory mechanisms encompassing the translational, post-translational, and epigenetic control for this complex and plastic status are also discussed.
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