Dr. Kemler, using an immunological approach, developed antibodies directed against surface antigens of early mouse embryos. These antibodies were shown to prevent compaction of the mouse embryo and interfered with subsequent development. Both Dr. Kemler and Dr. Takeichi went on to clone and sequence the gene encoding E-cadherin and demonstrate that it was governing homophilic cell adhesion.
Dr. Kemler also discovered the other proteins that interact with the cadherins, especially the catenins, to generate the machinery involved in animal cell-to-cell adhesion. This provided the first evidence of their importance in normal development and diseases such as cancer. It has been discovered that cadherins and catenins are correlated to the formation and growth of some cancers and how tumors continue to grow. Beta catenin is linked to cell adhesion through interaction with cadherins but is also a key component of the Wnt signalling pathway that is involved in normal development and cancer. There are approximately 100 types of cadherins, known as the cadherin superfamily.
Human tumors are often of epithelial origin. Given the role of E-cadherin for the integrity of an epithelial cell layer, the protein can be considered as a suppressor of tumor growth. The research on the cadherin superfamily has had great impact on fields as diverse as developmental biology, cell biology, oncology, immunology and neuroscience. Mutations in cadherins/catenins are frequently found in tumors. Various screens are being used to identify small molecules that might restore cell adhesion as a potential cancer therapy.