The variety of diseases caused by mutations in RET receptor tyrosine kinase provides a classic example of phenotypic heterogeneity. Gain-of-function mutations of RET are associated with human cancer. Gene rearrangements juxtaposing the tyrosine kinase domain to heterologous gene partners have been found in sporadic papillary carcinomas of the thyroid (PTC). These rearrangements generate chimeric RET/PTC oncogenes. In the germline, point mutations of RET are responsible for multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2 (MEN 2A and 2B) and familial medullary thyroid carcinoma (FMTC). Both MEN 2 mutations and PTC gene rearrangements potentiate the intrinsic tyrosine kinase activity of RET and, ultimately, activate the RET downstream targets. Loss-of-function mutations of RET cause Hirschsprung's disease (HSCR) or colonic aganglionosis. A deeper understanding of the molecular signaling of normal versus abnormal RET activity in cancer will enable the development of potential new treatments for patients with sporadic and inherited thyroid cancer or MEN 2 syndrome. We now review the role and mechanisms of RET signaling in development and carcinogenesis.
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