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Disease Markers
Volume 20 (2004), Issue 4-5, Pages 199-206

Colorectal Carcinogenesis: MSI-H Versus MSI-L

Timothy M. Pawlik, Chandrajit P. Raut, and Miguel A. Rodriguez-Bigas

Department of Surgical Oncology, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, USA

Received 26 October 2004; Accepted 26 October 2004

Copyright © 2004 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Microsatellite instability (MSI) is a well-recognized phenomenon that is classically a feature of tumors in the hereditary non-polyposis colorectal syndrome. Ten to 15% of sporadic colorectal cancers, however, will have MSI. Microsatellite unstable tumors can be divided into two distinct MSI phenotypes: MSI-high (MSI-H) and MSI-low (MSI-L). MSI sporadic colorectal cancers with a high level of MSI (MSI-H) form a well defined group with distinct clinicopathologic features characterized by an overall better long-term prognosis. These sporadic MSI-H colorectal tumors most often arise from the epigenetic silencing of the mismatch repair gene MLH1. In contrast, MSI-L colorectal tumors have not been shown to differ in their clinicopathologic features or in most molecular features from microsatellite stable (MSS) tumors. Unlike MSI-H tumors, MSI-L tumors appear to arise through the chromosomal instability carcinogenesis pathway, similar to MSS tumors. Some groups have reported more frequent mutations in K-ras and in the methylation of methylguanine transferase in MSI-L tumors, but others have questioned these findings. Therefore, although the use of the MSI-L category is widespread, there continues to be some debate as to whether a discrete MSI-L group truly exists. Rather, it has been suggested that MSI-L tumors differ quantitatively from MSS tumors but do not differ qualitatively. Future studies will need to evaluate the specific mutations in non-MSI-H tumors in an attempt to sub-classify MSI-L tumors with regard to MSS tumors so that subtle differences between these two sub-groups can be identified.