Differentiation is defined as the ability of a cell to acquire full functional behavior. For instance, the function of bladder urothelium is to act as a barrier to the diffusion of solutes into or out of the urine after excretion by the kidney. The urothelium also serves to protect the detrusor muscle from toxins present in stored urine. A major event in the initiation and progression of bladder cancer is loss of urothelial differentiation. This is important because less differentiated urothelial tumors (higher histologic tumor grade) are typically associated with increased biologic and clinical aggressiveness. The differentiation status of urothelial carcinomas can be assessed by histopathologic examination and is reflected in the assignment of a histologic grade (low-grade or high-grade). Although typically limited to morphologic evaluation in most routine diagnostic practices, tumor grade can also be assessed using biochemical markers. Indeed, current pathological analysis of tumor specimens is increasingly reliant on molecular phenotyping. Thus, high priorities for bladder cancer research include identification of (1) biomarkers that will enable the identification of high grade T1 tumors that pose the most threat and require the most aggressive treatment; (2) biomarkers that predict the likelihood that a low grade, American Joint Committee on Cancer stage pTa bladder tumor will progress into an invasive carcinoma with metastatic potential; (3) biomarkers that indicate which pTa tumors are most likely to recur, thus enabling clinicians to prospectively identify patients who require aggressive treatment; and (4) how these markers might contribute to biological processes that underlie tumor progression and metastasis, potentially through loss of terminal differentiation. This review will discuss the proteins associated with urothelial cell differentiation, with a focus on those implicated in bladder cancer, and other proteins that may be involved in neoplastic progression. It is hoped that ongoing discoveries associated with the study of these differentiation-promoting proteins can be translated into the clinic to positively impact patient care.
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