Abstract: Most malignant human tumors display a high degree of intratumoral heterogeneity at the time of diagnosis that contributes to treatment failure. This also applies to malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors (MPNSTs) and aggressive soft tissue sarcomas that arise sporadically or in the context of neurofibromatosis type 1. On average, MPNSTs measure 10 cm in diameter at diagnosis. To explore molecular changes associated with early malignant progression and that may be present in most, if not all, tumor cells, we generated expression profiles of ethylnitrosourea-induced trigeminal MPNSTs in rats. Because these tumors cause increased intracranial pressure, they become detectable when they are comparatively minuscule. Histologic analyses revealed close resemblance to human MPNSTs. Compared with normal trigeminal nerve tissue, 365 genes were markedly upregulated and 310 genes were consistently downregulated in all MPNST samples. The molecular signature characteristic of early-stage MPNSTs included upregulation of proliferation and tissue remodeling–associated genes, downregulation of genes involved in Schwann cell differentiation, and the absence of transcripts associated with neuronal components. The transforming growth factor-β pathway was consistently upregulated in all tumor samples. These data suggest that the signaling pathways underlying early malignant progression of Schwann cells might be targeted to prevent tumor growth and/or to treat more advanced lesions.