Posts Tagged ‘tumor microenvironment’

Tumor Ammonia Recycling: How Cancer Cells Use Glutamate Dehydrogenase to Recycle Tumor Microenvironment Waste Products for Biosynthesis

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

A feature of the tumorigenic process is the rewiring of the metabolic processes that provides a tumor cell the ability to grow and thrive in conditions of limiting nutrients as well as the ability to utilize waste products in salvage pathways for production of new biomass (amino acids, nucleic acids etc.) required for cellular growth and division 1-8.  A Science article from Spinelli et al. 9 (and corresponding Perspective article in the same issue by Dr. Chi V. Dang entitled Feeding Frenzy for Cancer Cells 10) describes the mechanism by which estrogen-receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer cells convert glutamine to glutamate, release ammonia  into the tumor microenvironment, diffuses into tumor cells and eventually recycle this ammonia by reductive amination of a-ketoglutarate by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH) to produce glutamic acid and subsequent other amino acids needed for biomass production.   Ammonia can accumulate in the tumor microenvironment in poorly vascularized tumor. Thus ammonia becomes an important nitrogen source for tumor cells.

Mammalian cells have a variety of mechanisms to metabolize ammonia including

  • Glutamate synthetase (GS) in the liver can incorporate ammonia into glutamate to form glutamine
  • glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH) converts glutamate to a-ketoglutarate and ammonia under allosteric regulation (discussed in a post on this site by Dr. Larry H. Berstein; subsection Drugging Glutaminolysis)
  • the reverse reaction of GDH, which was found to occur in ER+ breast cancer cells, a reductive amination of a-ketoglutarate to glutamate11, is similar to the reductive carboxylation of a-ketoglutarate to citrate by isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) for fatty acid synthesis (IDH is overexpressed in many tumor types including cancer stem cells 12-15), and involved in immune response and has been developed as a therapeutic target for various cancers. IDH mutations were shown to possess the neomorphic activity to generate the oncometabolite, 2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG) 16-18. With a single codon substitution, the kinetic properties of the mutant IDH isozyme are significantly altered, resulting in an obligatory sequential ordered reaction in the reverse direction 19.


In the Science paper, Spinelli et al. report that ER+ breast cancer cells have the ability to utilize ammonia sources from their surroundings in order to produce amino acids and biomass as these ER+ breast cancer cells have elevated levels of GS and GDH with respect to other breast cancer histotypes.

GDH was elevated in ER+ luminal cancer cells and the quiescent epithelial cells in organoid culture

However proliferative cells were dependent on transaminases, which transfers nitrogen from glutamate to pyruvate or oxaloacetate to form a-ketoglutarate and alanine or aspartate. a-ketoglutarate is further metabolized in the citric acid cycle.














Figure 1.    Reductive amination and transamination reactions of glutamic acid.  Source

Spinelli et al. showed GDH is necessary for ammonia reductive incorporation into a-ketoglutarate and also required for ER+ breast cancer cell growth in immunocompromised mice.

In addition, as commented by Dr. Dang in his associated Perspectives article, (quotes indent)

The metabolic tumor microenvironment produced by resident cells, such as fibroblasts and macrophages, can create an immunosuppressive environment 20.  Hence, it will be of great interest to further understand whether products such as ammonia could affect tumor immunity or induce autophagy  (end quote indent)




Figure 2.  Tumor ammonia recycling.  Source:  From Chi V. Dang Feeding Frenzy for cancer cells.  Rights from RightsLink (

Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass

Jessica B. Spinelli1,2, Haejin Yoon1, Alison E. Ringel1, Sarah Jeanfavre2, Clary B. Clish2, Marcia C. Haigis1 *

1.      1Department of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. 2.      2Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA.

* *Corresponding author. Email:

Science  17 Nov 2017:Vol. 358, Issue 6365, pp. 941-946 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9305


Ammonia is a ubiquitous by-product of cellular metabolism; however, the biological consequences of ammonia production are not fully understood, especially in cancer. We found that ammonia is not merely a toxic waste product but is recycled into central amino acid metabolism to maximize nitrogen utilization. In our experiments, human breast cancer cells primarily assimilated ammonia through reductive amination catalyzed by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH); secondary reactions enabled other amino acids, such as proline and aspartate, to directly acquire this nitrogen. Metabolic recycling of ammonia accelerated proliferation of breast cancer. In mice, ammonia accumulated in the tumor microenvironment and was used directly to generate amino acids through GDH activity. These data show that ammonia is not only a secreted waste product but also a fundamental nitrogen source that can support tumor biomass.




1          Strickaert, A. et al. Cancer heterogeneity is not compatible with one unique cancer cell metabolic map. Oncogene 36, 2637-2642, doi:10.1038/onc.2016.411 (2017).

2          Hui, S. et al. Glucose feeds the TCA cycle via circulating lactate. Nature 551, 115-118, doi:10.1038/nature24057 (2017).

3          Mashimo, T. et al. Acetate is a bioenergetic substrate for human glioblastoma and brain metastases. Cell 159, 1603-1614, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.11.025 (2014).

4          Sousa, C. M. et al. Erratum: Pancreatic stellate cells support tumour metabolism through autophagic alanine secretion. Nature 540, 150, doi:10.1038/nature19851 (2016).

5          Sousa, C. M. et al. Pancreatic stellate cells support tumour metabolism through autophagic alanine secretion. Nature 536, 479-483, doi:10.1038/nature19084 (2016).

6          Commisso, C. et al. Macropinocytosis of protein is an amino acid supply route in Ras-transformed cells. Nature 497, 633-637, doi:10.1038/nature12138 (2013).

7          Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R. A. The hallmarks of cancer. Cell 100, 57-70 (2000).

8          Hanahan, D. & Weinberg, R. A. Hallmarks of cancer: the next generation. Cell 144, 646-674, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.02.013 (2011).

9          Spinelli, J. B. et al. Metabolic recycling of ammonia via glutamate dehydrogenase supports breast cancer biomass. Science 358, 941-946, doi:10.1126/science.aam9305 (2017).

10        Dang, C. V. Feeding frenzy for cancer cells. Science 358, 862-863, doi:10.1126/science.aaq1070 (2017).

11        Smith, T. J. & Stanley, C. A. Untangling the glutamate dehydrogenase allosteric nightmare. Trends in biochemical sciences 33, 557-564, doi:10.1016/j.tibs.2008.07.007 (2008).

12        Metallo, C. M. et al. Reductive glutamine metabolism by IDH1 mediates lipogenesis under hypoxia. Nature 481, 380-384, doi:10.1038/nature10602 (2011).

13        Garrett, M. et al. Metabolic characterization of isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) mutant and IDH wildtype gliomaspheres uncovers cell type-specific vulnerabilities. Cancer & metabolism 6, 4, doi:10.1186/s40170-018-0177-4 (2018).

14        Calvert, A. E. et al. Cancer-Associated IDH1 Promotes Growth and Resistance to Targeted Therapies in the Absence of Mutation. Cell reports 19, 1858-1873, doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2017.05.014 (2017).

15        Sciacovelli, M. & Frezza, C. Metabolic reprogramming and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in cancer. The FEBS journal 284, 3132-3144, doi:10.1111/febs.14090 (2017).

16        Dang, L. et al. Cancer-associated IDH1 mutations produce 2-hydroxyglutarate. Nature 462, 739-744, doi:10.1038/nature08617 (2009).

17        Gross, S. et al. Cancer-associated metabolite 2-hydroxyglutarate accumulates in acute myelogenous leukemia with isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 and 2 mutations. The Journal of experimental medicine 207, 339-344, doi:10.1084/jem.20092506 (2010).

18        Ward, P. S. et al. The common feature of leukemia-associated IDH1 and IDH2 mutations is a neomorphic enzyme activity converting alpha-ketoglutarate to 2-hydroxyglutarate. Cancer cell 17, 225-234, doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2010.01.020 (2010).

19        Rendina, A. R. et al. Mutant IDH1 enhances the production of 2-hydroxyglutarate due to its kinetic mechanism. Biochemistry 52, 4563-4577, doi:10.1021/bi400514k (2013).

20        Zhang, X. et al. IDH mutant gliomas escape natural killer cell immune surveillance by downregulation of NKG2D ligand expression. Neuro-oncology 18, 1402-1412, doi:10.1093/neuonc/now061 (2016).


Other articles on this Open Access Journal on Cancer Metabolism Include:


Is the Warburg Effect the Cause or the Effect of Cancer: A 21st Century View?


Accumulation of 2-hydroxyglutarate is not a biomarker for malignant progression of IDH-mutated low grade gliomas



Protein-binding, Protein-Protein interactions & Therapeutic Implications [7.3]

Is the Warburg effect an effect of deregulated space occupancy of methylome?

Therapeutic Implications for Targeted Therapy from the Resurgence of Warburg ‘Hypothesis’

New Insights on the Warburg Effect [2.2]

The Inaugural Judith Ann Lippard Memorial Lecture in Cancer Research: PI 3 Kinase & Cancer Metabolism

Renal (Kidney) Cancer: Connections in Metabolism at Krebs cycle and Histone Modulation

Warburg Effect and Mitochondrial Regulation- 2.1.3

Refined Warburg Hypothesis -2.1.2



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Metabolic insight into cancer cell survival

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Revised 4/20/2016

AACR 2016: Novel Epigenetic Drug Therapeutics Revealed

As the 2016 American Association for Cancer Research meeting begins to downshift toward a close, the presentation sessions certainly did not suffer from a lack of enthusiasm from attendees or high-quality research from presenters. Of particular note was a major symposium that discussed next-generation epigenetic therapeutics.

In the past several years, there have been a variety of epigenetic targets exploited by newly developed drug compounds, many of which have already progressed into clinical trials. Often these compounds will target specific classes of epigenetic regulators like acetylases and histone demethylases, for instance, the small-molecule inhibitors of protein interacting bromodomains—implicated in a diverse range of cancers—and methyltransferase inhibitors, such as lysyl demethylases (KDM).

However, for all of their recently achieved success, researchers are continually searching for increasingly rapid methods to validate epigenetic drug targets. Session Chairperson Udo Oppermann, Ph.D., principal investigator at the University of Oxford, stressed that open access research and continued investigator cooperation were key factors for driving rapid development of novel therapeutics in the field. Anecdotally, Dr. Oppermann noted that if biologists were a bit more like the international cooperative teams of physicists that discovered the Higgs boson or gravitational waves, many biological endeavors would advance rather quickly.

After providing the audience with a brief introduction to the symposium’s topic, Dr. Oppermann described his current research on histone demethylase inhibitors in multiple myeloma and the connection to metabolic pathways. He surmised that tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle-derived metabolites can link cellular metabolism to cancer—impacting epigenetic landscapes. Specifically, the TCA intermediates are inhibitors of KDMs, ultimately controlling epigenetic and metabolic regulation.

Furthermore, Dr. Oppermann’s group was able to show that treatment of myeloma cell lines with the potent and specific histone demethylase inhibitor GSK-J4 was able to reverse the Myc-driven metabolic dependency, forcing a selected amino acid depletion. This deficiency led to the integrated stress response and the activation of proapoptotic genes. This work helps to solidify further the potent nature of GSK-J4 in cancer while simultaneously uncovering the metabolic mechanisms that cancer cells employ to keep their overproliferative phenotypes progressing forward.

Next, Tomasz Cierpicki, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Michigan, described his work on targeting leukemic stem cells with small-molecule inhibitors of the protein regulator of cytokinesis 1 (PRC1). Dr. Cierpicki took the audience through his research design, which was to target BMI1, an oncogene that determines the proliferative capacity and self-renewal potential of normal and leukemic stem cells. BMI1 has been implicated in a variety of tumors and is essential for the Polycomb Repressive Complex 1 (PRC1). Moreover, BMI1 interacts with the RING1B protein to form an active E3 ubiquitin ligase that targets histone H2A, modifying epigenetic regulation mechanisms.

Dr. Cierpicki’s laboratory looked at inhibitors of the RING1B–BMI1 E3 ligase complex as potential therapeutic agents targeting cancer stem cells. Using an array of techniques from fragment screening to medicinal chemistry, the researchers were able to identify potent compounds that bound to RING1B–BMI1 and inhibit its E3 ubiquitin ligase activity with low micromolar affinities. When testing in vitro, the inhibitors revealed robust downregulation of H2A ubiquitination. Dr. Cierpicki and his colleagues found that the RING1–BMI1 inhibitor blocked the self-renewal capacity of the stem cells and induced cellular differentiation—validating RING ligases as a novel epigenetic drug target.

Finishing up the session was William Sellers, M.D., vice president and global head of oncology for the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Dr. Sellers’ research is focused on what genes are necessary for epigenetic regulation of cancer and how they are linked to essential metabolic processes. He and his colleagues accomplished their studies through the use of large-scale shRNA screening across a diverse set of 390 cancer cell lines.

Utilizing deep small hairpin RNA (shRNA) screening libraries, at 20 shRNAs per genome, provided the investigators with highly robust gene-level data, which resulted in the emergence of several distinct classes of cancer-dependent genes. For example, Dr. Sellers’ group found that several known oncogenes fell into the genetic dependence class, whereas other genes were sorted into lineage, paralog, and collateral synthetic lethality dependent classes.

An interesting example from Dr. Sellers’ work was the link his laboratory discovered between polyamine metabolism and salvage and the protein arginine methyltransferase 5 (PRMT5). In particular, the loss of methylthioadenosine phosphorylase (MTAP)—which has been observed in many solid tumors and hematologic malignancies—resulted in the accumulation of S-methyl-5′-thioadenosine (MTA), which specifically inhibited the epigenetic mechanisms of PRMT5. The culmination Dr. Sellers’ analysis led to the finding that PRMT5 is a novel target for therapeutic development in MTAP deleted cancers.

These three presentations represented some of the excellent, cutting-edge research that is not only looking to develop novel drug therapeutics but also trying to uncover the underlying molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation and cancer.




A Metabolic Twist that Drives Cancer Survival

A novel metabolic pathway that helps cancer cells thrive in conditions that are lethal to normal cells has been identified.


“It’s long been thought that if we could target tumor-specific metabolic pathways, it could lead to effective ways to treat cancer,” said senior author Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis, Associate Professor of CRI and Pediatrics, Director of CRI’s Genetic and Metabolic Disease Program, and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Genetics and Metabolism at UT Southwestern. “This study finds that two very different metabolic processes are linked in a way that is specifically required for cells to adapt to the stress associated with cancer progression.”

The study, available online today in the journal Nature, reveals that cancer cells use an alternate version of two well-known metabolic pathways called the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP) and the Krebs cycle to defend against toxins. The toxins are reactive oxygen species (ROS) that kill cells via oxidative stress.

This work builds on earlier studies by Dr. DeBerardinis’ laboratory that found the Krebs cycle, a series of chemical reactions that cells use to generate energy, could reverse itself under certain conditions to nourish cancer cells.

Dr. DeBerardinis said most normal cells and tumor cells grow by attaching to nutrient-rich tissue called a matrix. “They are dependent on matrix attachment to receive growth-promoting signals and to regulate their metabolism in a way that supports cell growth, proliferation, and survival,” he said.

Detachment from the matrix results in a sudden increase in ROS that is lethal to normal cells, he added. Cancer cells seem to have a workaround.

The destruction of healthy cells when detached from the matrix was reported in a landmark 2009 Nature study by Harvard Medical School cell biologist Dr. Joan Brugge. Intriguingly, that same study found that inserting an oncogene – a gene with the potential to cause cancer – into a normal cell caused it to behave like a cancer cell and survive detachment, said Dr. DeBerardinis, who also is affiliated with the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth & Development, holds the Joel B. Steinberg, M.D. Chair in Pediatrics, and is a Sowell Family Scholar in Medical Research at UT Southwestern.

“Another Nature study, this one from CRI Director Dr. Sean Morrison’s laboratory in November 2015, found that the rare skin cancer cells that were able to detach from the primary tumor and successfully metastasize to other parts of the body had the ability to keep ROS levels from getting dangerously high,” Dr. DeBerardinis said. Dr. Morrison, also a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, holds the Mary McDermott Cook Chair in Pediatrics Genetics at UT Southwestern.

Working under the premise that the two findings were pieces of the same puzzle, a crucial part of the picture seemed to be missing, he said.

It was known for decades that the PPP was a major source of NADPH, which provides a source of reducing equivalents (that is, electrons) to scavenge ROS; however, the PPP produces NADPH in a part of the cell called the cytosol, whereas the reactive oxygen species are generated primarily in another subcellular structure called the mitochondria.

“If you think of ROS as fire, then NADPH is like the water used by cancer cells to douse the flames,” Dr. DeBerardinis said. But how could NADPH from the PPP help deal with the stress of ROS produced in a completely different part of the cell? “What we did was to discover how this happens,” Dr. DeBerardinis said.

The current study in Nature demonstrates that cancer cells use a “piggybacking” system to carry reducing equivalents from the PPP into the mitochondria. This movement involves an unusual reaction in the cytosol that transfers reducing equivalents from NADPH to a molecule called citrate, similar to a reversed reaction of the Krebs cycle, he said. The citrate then enters the mitochondria and stimulates another pathway that results in the release of reducing equivalents to produce NADPH right at the location of ROS creation, allowing the cancer cells to survive and grow without the benefit of matrix attachment.

“We knew that both the PPP and Krebs cycle provide metabolic benefits to cancer cells.  But we had no idea that they were linked in this unusual fashion,” he said. “Strikingly, normal cells were unable to transport NADPH by this mechanism, and died as a result of the high ROS levels.”

Dr. DeBerardinis stressed that the findings were based on cultured cell models, and more research will be necessary to test the role of the pathway in living organisms. “We are particularly excited to test whether this pathway is required for metastasis, because cancer cells need to survive in a matrix-detached state in the circulation in order to metastasize,” he said.

CRI scientists find novel metabolic twist that drives cancer survival days ago Cancer Cell Survival Driven by Novel Metabolic Pathway … This new study describes an alternate version of two wellknown metabolic pathways, the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP) and the Krebs cycle,… Jan 19, 2012 Nature | Letter …. DeBerardinis, R. J. et al. Beyond aerobic …. Andrew R. Mullen,; Pei-Hsuan Chen,; Tzuling Cheng &; Ralph J. DeBerardinis ..   

Haematopoietic stem cells require a highly regulated protein – Nature May 1, 2014 Nature | Article. Print; Share/ ….. synthesis. Nature Methods 6, 275–277 (2009) …. Robert A. J. Signer,; Jeffrey A. Magee &; Sean J. Morrison … Nov 12, 2015 Nature | Article ….. Multistep nature of metastatic inefficiency: dormancy of solitary cells after successful extravasation and ….. Sean J. Morrison …     
Deep imaging of bone marrow shows non-dividing stem Nature   Oct 1, 2015 Nature | Letter. Print; Share/ …… Morrison, S. J. & Scadden, D. T. The bone marrow niche for ….. Kiranmai S. Kocherlakota &; Sean J. Morrison … and cancer: cell biology, physiology, and clinical opportunities …. Metabolism of glutamine-derived α-ketoglutarate in the TCA cycle serves … known as hexosamines, that are used to glycosylate growth factor receptors and …… of two wellknown metabolic pathways, the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP )
The Mitochondrial Warburg Effect: A Cancer Enigma – IBC Journal This feature of cancer cells is known as the Warburg effect, named … new paradigm of collaboration and a well-designed systemic approach will supply … Krebs cycle. … The pentose phosphate pathway uses glucose to produce ribose, which is used … glucose is taken up into cells, it is used in two main metabolic pathways


New paper offers intriguing insights into tumor metabolism     William G. Gilroy    August 19, 2009

Posted In: Research

A paper appearing in this week’s edition of the journal Nature by a team of researchers that includes University of Notre Dame biologist Zachary T. Schafer has important new implications for understanding the metabolism of tumors.

Schafer, an assistant professor of biological sciences and Coleman Junior Chair of Cancer Biology, points out that in the early stages of tumor formation some cells become detached from their normal cellular matrix. These “homeless” cells tend to develop certain defects that stop them from becoming cancerous. In a process known as apoptosis, these precancerous cells essentially kill themselves, allowing them to be destroyed by immune system cells.

The prevailing wisdom among researchers has been that apoptosis was the only way that cells could die.

In studies conducted prior to the research described in the Nature paper, it was found that even when apoptosis was inhibited in detached, precancerous cells, they still eventually died. Intrigued by these results, a team of researchers led by Joan S. Brugge, Louise Foote Pfieffer Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, and Schafer decided to take a closer look.

They report in this week’s Nature paper that they found that even when apoptosis was inhibited in detached cells endowed with a cancer-causing gene, they still were incapable of absorbing glucose, their primary energy source. Additionally, the cells displayed signs of oxidative stress, which is a harmful accumulation of oxygen-derived molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). The research also revealed decreased ATP production, a key factor in energy transport in the cells.

Schafer notes that this combination of loss of glucose transport, decreased ATP production and heightened oxidative stress reveal a manner of cell death that hadn’t been previously demonstrated to play a role in this context.

In the next phase of the study, Schafer engineered the cells to express a high level of HER2, a gene known to be hyperactive in many breast cancer tumors. He also treated the cells with antioxidants to relieve oxidative stress.

Both approaches helped the cells survive. The HER2-treated cells regained glucose transport, avoided oxidative stress and recovered ATP levels.
Most surprisingly, the antioxidants restored metabolic activity in the cells by allowing fatty acids to be effectively used instead of glucose as an energy source, providing them with a chance to survive.

“Our results raise the possibility that antioxidant activity might allow early stage tumor cells to survive where they would otherwise die from these metabolic defects,” Schafer said.

He also cautions that while the antioxidant findings were surprising, their research was done solely in cell cultures and more research needs to be done before there are clear implications for individuals and their diets.

The paper does, however, offer important new clues about the metabolism of tumor cells and important information that may lead to drugs that can developed to target them.


Antioxidant and Oncogene Rescue of Metabolic Defects Caused by 19, 2009
Nature. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 Sep 2. Published in … Y. Irie,1 Sizhen Gao,1 Pere Puigserver,1,2 and Joan S. Brugge1,*.
Proteasome inhibitors have been shown to be effective in cancer treatment, an ability … a specific inhibitor of 26S proteasome, also reduced cell viability ( 80% with 10 mu …
be a consequence of the increased generation of ROS caused by MG132. …. vectors endowed with the wild type forms of RB or p53 genes (Figure 1f).


The Metastasis-Promoting Roles of Tumor-Associated Immune Cells

Tumor metastasis is driven not only by the accumulation of intrinsic alterations in malignant cells, but also by the interactions of cancer cells with various stromal cell components of the tumor microenvironment. In particular, inflammation and infiltration of the tumor tissue by host immune cells, such as tumor-associated macrophages, myeloid-derived suppressor cells, and regulatory T cells have been shown to support tumor growth in addition to invasion and metastasis. Each step of tumor development, from initiation through metastatic spread, is promoted by communication between tumor and immune cells via the secretion of cytokines, growth factors and proteases that remodel the tumor microenvironment. Invasion and metastasis requires neovascularization, breakdown of the basement membrane, and remodeling of the extracellular matrix for tumor cell invasion and extravasation into the blood and lymphatic vessels. The subsequent dissemination of tumor cells to distant organ sites necessitates a treacherous journey through the vasculature, which is fostered by close association with platelets and macrophages. Additionally, the establishment of the pre-metastatic niche and specific metastasis organ tropism is fostered by neutrophils and bone marrow-derived hematopoietic immune progenitor cells and other inflammatory cytokines derived from tumor and immune cells, which alter the local environment of the tissue to promote adhesion of circulating tumor cells. This review focuses on the interactions between tumor cells and immune cells recruited to the tumor microenvironment, and examines the factors allowing these cells to promote each stage of metastasis.


Once established, tumors are quite adept at preventing anti-tumor immune responses, and several defense mechanisms to circumvent immune detection have been described including antigen loss, down-regulation of major histocompatibility molecules (MHC), deregulation or loss of components of the endogenous antigen presentation pathway, and tumor-induced immune suppression mediated through cytokine secretion or direct interactions between tumor ligands and immune cell receptors [2]. These mechanisms contribute to the process of immunoediting in which tumor cell subpopulations susceptible to immune recognition are lysed and eliminated, while resistant tumor cells proliferate and increase their frequency in the developing neoplasia [3]. However, tumors not only effectively escape immune recognition, they also actively subvert the normal anti-tumor activity of immune cells to promote further tumor growth and metastasis.

During early stages of cancer development, infiltrating immune cell populations are primarily tumor suppressive, but depending on the presence of accessory stromal cells, the local cytokine milieu, and tumor-specific interactions, these immune cells can undergo phenotypic changes to enhance tumor cell dissemination and metastasis. For instance, CD4+ T cells, macrophages, and neutrophils have all been shown to possess opposing properties depending on the inflammatory state of the tumor environment, the tissue context, and other cellular stimuli intrinsic to the altered tumor cells [4, 5]. These features are dependent upon the inherent plasticity of immune cells in response to stimulatory or suppressive cytokines [6]. Notably, the switch from a Th1 tumor-suppressive phenotype such as CD4+ “helper” T cells, which aid cytotoxic CD8+ T cells in tumor rejection, to a Th2 tumor-promoting “regulatory” phenotype, which blocks CD8+ T-cell activity, is a characteristic outcome in the inflammatory, immune-suppressive tumor microenvironment [5, 7]. Likewise, M1 macrophages and N1 neutrophils are known to have pronounced anti-tumor activity; however, these immune cells are often subverted to a tumor-promoting M2 and N2 phenotype, respectively, in response to immune-suppressive cytokines secreted by tumor tissue [8].


The crosstalk that occurs between tumor and immune cells within the tumor microenvironment, the circulation, or at distant metastatic sites has been clearly shown to foster metastatic dissemination. Immune cells as well as the suppressive factors that they secrete represent potential targets for therapeutic intervention. Regardless of their source, cytokines, chemokines, proteases, and growth factors are some of the main factors contributing to immunosuppression and immune-mediated tumor progression. These molecules can be produced by immune, stromal, or malignant cells and can act in paracrine and autocrine fashion to promote each stage of tumor cell invasion and metastasis by enhancing inflammation, angiogenesis, tumor proliferation, and recruitment of additional immunosuppressive and tumor-promoting immune cells. These secreted factors provide the malignant cells with an abundant source of growth and survival signals that perpetuate a supportive microenvironment for tumor metastasis and represent some of the most attractive targets for directed anti-tumor therapy. Immune pathways provide numerous soluble targets for cancer treatment, and indeed, many drugs to target immune-suppressive molecules are moving forward in clinical trials. For instance, the anti-RANKL (Denosumab) antibody has been shown to effectively inhibit bone metastasis in prostate cancer patients [201], while a variety of neutralizing antibodies to IL-1β and IL-1 receptor have been shown to have efficacy in treating metastasis in pre-clinical animal models [202]. Several agents that target IL-1 or other immune-suppressive cytokines are already approved for the treatment of some inflammatory diseases and are prime candidates for human trails [202]. Additionally, other proteins involved in tumor progression that are induced directly or indirectly by immune cell populations, such as EMT-associated transcription factors, adhesion molecules, and tumor receptors and ligands which mediate immune suppression, could also be targeted with small molecules or blocking antibodies. Antibodies against two surface molecules expressed by suppressive lymphoid cells, anti-CTLA-4 (ipiliumimab) [203, 204] and anti-PD-1 have been recently gaining increasing support from clinical trials for their effective treatment for many forms of cancer including advanced melanoma and prostate cancer [205, 206]. Specifically, anti-CTLA-4 has been shown to be particularly efficacious in metastatic melanoma, while anti-PD-1 has only just begun a comprehensive evaluation in clinical trials [204, 207]. Likewise, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) to prevent or treat chronic inflammation and lymphangiogenesis [208210], and anti-coagulants to prevent platelet aggregation on circulating tumor cells [211] are just two examples of a multitude of therapeutic agents that could be utilized to prevent immune-mediated tumor progression at unique stages of metastasis. Of course, new methods or biomarkers for the detection of patients at risk of tumor progression or metastasis are also desperately needed to tailor personalized therapy for patients to obtain the best possible clinical outcome.


  1. 26, 2016 This turns your immune systems ability to attack and kill cancer cells back on” …. the rare skin cancer cells that were able to detach from theprimary tumor and successfully metastasize to other parts of the body had the ability to keep ROS levels from getting dangerously high,” Dr. DeBerardinis remarked.

  2. HDAC-inhibiting agent romidepsin significantly increased T-cell tumor … skin cancer cells that were able to detach from the primary tumor and successfully … of the body had the ability to keep ROS levels from getting dangerously high,” Dr. …. Sensitivity for EGFR or KRAS was higher in patients with multiplemetastatic …

  3. a study involving 320 patients, the researchers were able to infer cell death in …. Glutamine and cancer: cell biology, physiology, and clinical opportunities … On the other hand, GLS2 expression is enhanced in some neuroblastomas, …… of the body had the ability to keep ROS levels from getting dangerously high,” Dr.


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Tumor Associated Macrophages: The Double-Edged Sword Resolved?

Writer/Curator: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

Cell-based immunity is vital for our defense against pathologic insult but recent evidence has shown the role of cell-based immunity, especially macrophages to play an important role in both the development and hindrance of tumor growth, including role in ovarian, hematologic cancers, melanoma, and breast cancer.  In the past half century, new immunological concepts of cancer initiation and progression have emerged, including the importance of the harnessing the immune system as a potential anti-cancer strategy. However, as our knowledge of the immune system and tumor biology has grown, the field has realized an immunological conundrum: how can an immune system act to both prevent tumor growth and promote the tumor’s growth?

As discussed in the lower section of this post, authors of a paper in the journal Science show how different populations of tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) may exert both positive and negative effects on tumor cells, producing a sort of ying-yang war between the tumor and the immune system.

The Immune System: Brief Overview and Role in Cancer






Figure. Cell lineage of the immune system. A description of the different cell types can be found here.







Histologic evaluation of multiple tumor types, especially solid tumors, reveal the infiltration of diverse immunological cell types, including myeloid and lymphoid cell lineages, such as macrophages and NK, T cell and B cells respectively.

The immunological conundrum



Figure. Potential inflammatory signaling pathways in breast cancer stem cells.
Breast cancer stem cells may be regulated by chemokine- and/or cytokine-mediated inflammatory signaling in an autocrine or paracrine manner. (from University of Tokyo at


Role of Tumor Associated Macrophages

There are conflicting reports as to the functional consequence of these infiltrating tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs). TAMs have been shown to secrete mediators such as interleukins and cytokines in a paracrine manner such as CCL2, IL10 and TGFβ. In certain instances these cytokines and mediators actually promote the growth of the surrounding tumors.

J Leukoc Biol 2009 Nov 86(5) 1065-73, Figure 1




Figure.  TAMs can be divided into subpopulations with distinctive functions and secretogogues.


For Further Reference

Tumor-associated macrophages and the profile of inflammatory cytokines in oral squamous cell carcinoma. anti-inflamm IL10 and TGFB

Tumor-associated macrophage-derived IL-6 and IL-8 enhance invasive activity of LoVo cells induced by PRL-3 in a KCNN4 channel-dependent manner



Figure 2: TAM functions in tumor progression. Tumor cells and stromal cells, which produce a series of chemokines and growth factors, induce monocytes to differentiate into macrophages. In the tumor, most macrophages are M2-like, and they express some cytokines, chemokines, and proteases, which promote tumor angiogenesis, metastasis, and immunosuppression. From Macrophages in Tumor Microenvironments and the Progression of Tumors








Macrophages integrate metabolic and environmental signals to promote tumor growth. Area within dotted rectangle indicates proposed mechanisms of action. ARG, arginase; HIF, hypoxia-inducible factor; MCT, monocarboxylate transporter; NADH, nicotine adenine dinucleotide, reduced; PKM2, M2 isoform of pyruvate kinase; VEGF, vascular endothelial growth factor from Tumor cells hijack macrophages via lactic acid adapted from Colegio OR, Chu N-Q, Szabo AL, Chu T, Rhebergen AM, Jairam V et al. Functional polarization of tumour-associated macrophages by tumour-derived lactic acid. Nature (e-pub ahead of print 13 July 2014; doi:10.1038/nature13490). | Article |

Depletion of M2-Like Tumor-Associated Macrophages Delays Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma Development In Vivo

Targeting tumor-associated macrophages in an orthotopic murine model of diffuse malignant mesothelioma

Crosstalk between colon cancer cells and macrophages via inflammatory mediators and CD47 promotes tumour cell migration

Tumor-Associated Macrophages Regulate Murine Breast Cancer Stem Cells Through a Novel Paracrine EGFR/Stat3/Sox-2 Signaling Pathway

Science Paper: Different Populations of TAMS Have Different Tumor Effects

The cellular and molecular origin of tumor-associated macrophages Eric G. Pamer1 Ruth A. Franklin1,2, Will Liao3, Abira Sarkar1, Myoungjoo V. Kim1,2, Michael R. Bivona1, Kang Liu4, Ming O. Li1, Science 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 921-925

A recent Science paper from Cornel has investigated the origin, function, and characterization of TAMs on breast cancer growth. In summary, their efforts and research suggest different populations of TAMs with varied tumorigenic effects, a finding which may help explain the immunologic conundrum with respect to solid tumors.

The authors characterized the infiltrating immune cell types in a MMTV-PyMt model of breast cancer.


The MMTV-PyMt mouse breast cancer model:

is a transgenic model where mammary gland expression of the polyoma middle T antigen (PyMT) is driven by the Mouse Mammary Tumor Virus promoter (MMTV).

Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 2009 Sep 73(3) 542-63, FIG. 5










For a review of mouse models of breast cancer please see

Mouse models of breast cancer metastasis. Anna Fantozzi1 and Gerhard Christofori. Breast Cancer Res. 2006; 8(4): 212.



1.     Macrophages constitute the predominate myeloid cell population in MMTV-PyMT mammary tumors

Tumor infiltrating immune cells included

  • Myeloid cells comprised 50% of CD45+ infiltrating leukocytes.
  • The CD45 antigen, also known as Protein tyrosine phosphatase, receptor type, C (PTPRC) is an enzyme that, in humans, is encoded by the PTPRC gene, and acts as a regulator of B and T-lymphocytes.
  • Authors noted three types of cells classified as Type I, II, and III based on
  1. Cell morphology
  2. Major histocompatibility complex
  • Infiltrating monocytes and neutrophils
  • Cells with dendritic and macrophage markers


2. TAMS differentiate from CCR2+ inflammatory monocytes

  • To determine whether Ly6C+CCR2+ inflammatory monocytes contributed to TAMs and MTMs, authors crossed PyMT mice to Ccr2−/− mice and found MTMs (mammary tumor macrophages) were significantly reduced in Ccr2−/− PyMT mice, implying that MTMs are constitutively repopulated by inflammatory monocytes
  • To determine whether inflammatory monocytes were required for TAM maintenance, we generated CCR2DTR PyMT mice expressing diphtheria toxin receptor (DTR) under control of the Ccr2 locus DT treatment resulted in 96% depletion of tumor-associated monocytes compared to 80% depletion in Ccr2−/− mice
  • To investigate whether monocytes could differentiate into TAMs in vivo, we transferred CCR2+ bone marrow cells isolated from CCR2GFP reporter mice into congenically marked CCR2DTR PyMT mice depleted of endogenous monocytes, we observed transferred cells in developing tumors demonstrate that tumor growth induces the differentiation of CCR2+ monocytes into TAMs.


3.     TAMs are phenotypically distinct from AAMs (M2 or alternatively activated macrophages)

  • Gene-expression profiling revealed the integrin CD11b (Itgam) was expressed at lower levels in TAMs than in MTMs while several other integrins and the integrin receptor Vcam1 were up-regulated in TAMs
  • AM population did not express AAM markers such as Ym1, Fizz1, and Mrc1; instead, MTMs more closely resembled AAMs. The authors detected Vcam1 up-regulation on TAMs as a late differentiation event


4.    RBPJ-dependent TAMs modulate the adaptive immune response

  • In DCs, canonical Notch signaling mediated by the key transcriptional regulator RBPJ controls lineage commitment and terminal differentiation. To explore whether Notch signaling played a role in TAM differentiation, authors used CD11ccre mice that efficiently deleted floxed DNA sequences to a greater extent in TAMs than MTMs, but not in monocytes or neutrophils (fig. S14). CD11ccreRbpjfl/fl PyMT mice exhibited a selective loss of MHCIIhiCD11blo TAMs ( 4A). However, a MHCIIhiCD11bhi population still remained
  • Transcriptional profiling comparing this population to WT TAMs confirmed a loss of the Notch-dependent program in RBPJ-deficient cells revealing that in the absence of RBPJ, inflammatory monocytes are unable to terminally differentiate into TAMs.


Other posts on this site on Immunology and Cancer include

The Delicate Connection: IDO (Indolamine 2, 3 dehydrogenase) and Cancer Immunology

Innovations in Tumor Immunology

T cell-mediated immune responses & signaling pathways activated by TLRs

Vaccines, Small Peptides, aptamers and Immunotherapy [9]

Report on Cancer Immunotherapy Market & Clinical Pipeline Insight

Molecular Profiling in Cancer Immunotherapy: Debraj GuhaThakurta, PhD

Immunotherapy in Cancer: A Series of Twelve Articles in the Frontier of Oncology by Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP


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Cancer Metastasis

Author: Tilda Barliya PhD

Metastasis, a complex process that involves the spread of tumor cells, accounts for more than 90%of cancer-related mortality (1,2). A metastatic tumor cell has a treacherous journey to go through:

  • local invasion and intravasation
  • survival in the circulation
  • homing and extravasation into the parenchyma of distant organs
  • adaptation to the new environment
  • outgrowth of secondary lesions

Although tumor cells that are shed from the primary tumor disseminate throughout the body, they tend to colonize select organs, with characteristically different periods of latency and efficiency depending on tumor type or subtype (2).

Steven Paget’s century-old ‘seed and soil’ hypothesis (2, 9) likened tumor cells to ‘seeds’ that are systemically distributed, but that only inhabit particular environments, or ‘soils’, which are supportive to their sustained growth. Understanding the molecular complexity of this process is difficult and we’ll try to unravel some of the pathogenesis and cellular basis that support the metastatic process.

Progression models:

There are two major tumor progression models (2) :

  • Linear –  primary tumour cells undergo successive rounds of mutation and selection35, giving rise to a biologically heterogeneous cellular population in which a subset of malignant clones have accumulated genetic alterations, necessary for metastasis.
  • Parallel –  tumor cells may disseminate very early in malignant progression, colonize multiple secondary sites at different times and ultimately accumulate genetic changes independently from those incurred by the primary tumor.

While both theories are possible, the linear model is validated by both clinical evidence and animal models, the parallel model is mainly based on animal models and still under investigation for clinical clues.

Meera Saxena. Molecular Oncology
Volume 7, Issue 2 , Pages 283-296, April 2013

Drivers of metastasis

During the past few years several methods and studies have been used to find and correlate between a specific gene and it’s homing target.

These genes, which were found using next-generation sequencing and their equivalents, were also validated their actual functional consequences.

Figure 1 (Meera Saxena et al) represent some of the genes that were associated with organ-specific translocation (additional genes were recently identified and included in table 1 – Sethi N et all). Herein, we generally show the gene to organ-specific homing, yet we will not discuss each and every one of them.  An example of specific gene to organ will be further discussed in detail in follow up article.

Signalling pathways in cancer metastasis have been extensively studied at the level of individual proteins or as a linear cascade of proteins but they have been less frequently evaluated through a network approach (2). Understanding the different variables in the gene-metastasis network may be crucial for drug development.

For example;  the drug–gene–phenotype Connectivity Map approach was successfully used to identify the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin as an effective agent for overcoming dexamethasone resistance in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (2, 4).


“Non-neoplastic stromal cells have a function in the development of tumor metastasis. Stromal cells as important regulators of metastasis through their ability to influence cancer cell functions such as chemotaxis and invasion, as well as microenvironment properties. It should not come as a surprise that tumor angiogenesis was among the initial findings that supported a role for stromal cells in cancer metastasis; the poor vascular integrity of newly synthesized blood vessels within the tumour allows for the escape of malignant cells with the potential of distant spread” (2). Such cells include:

  • Tumour-associated macrophages,
  • Leukocytes and other immune cells,
  • Mesenchymal cells that reside in breast tissue
  • Mesenchymal cells and neuroendocrine cells

Although some of the molecular pathway was discovered, the molecular components that facilitate communication between tumour cells and individual stromal cells of the primary tumor have yet to be fully understood.

Circulating Tumor cells (CTC)

“Essential to cancer metastasis is the ability of primary tumor cells to enter the vasculature and to use these fluid ‘highways’ as a means to reach distant organs”. Tight vascular wall barriers, unfavorable conditions for survival in distant organs, and a rate-limiting acquisition of organ colonization functions are just some of the impediments to the formation of distant metastasis (2,5,6 ).

Despite their clear prognostic importance, the diagnostic value of CTCs is largely unknown and fairly unexplored. Research challenges both in detection and interpretation render their ability to  be clinically accepted. Additional research is needed to fully explore CTCs’ potential in to predict clinical response to therapy would also help to guide disease management.


The colonization and outgrowth of tumor cells in a secondary organ is often considered the rate-limiting, as well as the most poorly delineated, step in the metastatic cascade. Understanding the functional involvement of the tumor stromal cells of the secondary site may be crucial to understanding their ability to colonize.

The pre-metastatic niche model shows that, preceding the arrival of  disseminated tumour cells (DTCs), bone marrow-derived haematopoietic stem cells are mobilized by tumour-derived factors and are recruited to the secondary site where they negotiate a more hospitable microenvironment to foster the survival and expansion of metastatic lesions. Inflammatory cytokines have emerged as crucial mediators of the pre-metastatic niche and self-seeding and include IL-6, SRC and NF-kB.

After surviving the adjustment to the secondary site, tumor cells must sustain their growth to develop overt metastases. Developmental pathways have emerged as important players in tumor progression and metastasis. These include: transforming growth factor-β (TGFβ), bone morphogenetic protein (BMP), WNT and Hedgehog.  These genes will trigger additional genes that will affect downstream steps of the colonization process.

Clinical Aspect

“As most metastatic cancers are inoperable, systemic treatments using chemotherapeutic or targeted therapy is often the only option to slow tumor growth or to relieve metastasis-associated morbidity”.  Genes and pathways that have crucial roles in primary tumour growth and metastasis are ideal targets for therapeutic inventions. One example is the oncogenic BRAF:  potent inhibitors of mutant BRAF, had initial clinical results which suggest dramatic efficacy in the treatment of metastatic malignant melanoma.  It is important to keep in mind that many cancers develop resistance to BRAF inhibitor and require used of next-generation drugs. More so,  the mechanism of resistance will be discussed elsewhere.

A sound framework of normal homeostatic mechanisms can improve our ability to understand and target tumor–stromal interactions in metastasis.


“Despite recognizing the devastating consequences of metastasis, we are not yet able to effectively treat cancer that has spread to vital organs” .  Despite our increasing knowledge about metastatic colonization, we still hold little understanding of how metastatic tumour cells behave as solitary disseminated entities. Understanding the genomics of metastatic cancer cells and the complexity of the metastasis process will enable us to develop a better target-therapeutic drugs.



1. Naure Review: Cancer: focus on metastasis.

2. Nilay Sethi and Yibin Kang. Unravelling the complexity of metastasis — molecular understanding and targeted therapies. Nature Reviews Cancer 2011; 11:732- 748.

3. Meera Saxena and Gerhard Christophor. Rebuilding cancer metastasis in the mouse. Molecular Oncology 2013, 7(2):283-296.

4. Lamb, J. et al. The Connectivity Map: using geneexpression signatures to connect small molecules, genes, and disease. Science 2006 313, 1929–1935.

5. Chiang AC and Massagué J. Molecular basis of metastasis. N Engl J Med. 2008 Dec 25;359(26):2814 23 ;

6. By: Ritu Saxena PhD. In focus: Circulating Tumor Cells.

7.   Davies, H. et al. Mutations of the BRAF gene in human cancer. Nature 2002, 417, 949–954.

8. Arozarena, I. et al. Oncogenic BRAF induces melanoma cell invasion by downregulating the cGMP specific phosphodiesterase PDE5A. Cancer Cell 19, 45–57 (2011).

9. Isaiah J. Fidler. The pathogenesis of cancer metastasis: the ‘seed and soil’ hypothesis revisited. Nature Review Cancer. 2003 June. 3(6):453-8.

10. Christoph A. Klein. Parallel progression of primary tumours and metastases.   Nat Rev Cancer. 2009 Apr;9(4):302-12


Other related articles published on this Open Access Scientific Journal, include the following:

I. By: Ritu Saxena PhD. In focus: Circulating Tumor Cells.

II. By: Ritu Saxena PhD. Scientists use natural agents for prostate cancer bone metastasis treatment.

III. By: Prabodh Kandala, PhD. All Cancer Cells Are Not Created Equal: Some Cell Types Control Continued Tumor Growth, Others Prepare the Way for Metastasis.

IV. By: Aviva Lev-Ari PhD RN. MIT Scientists Identified Gene that Controls Aggressiveness in Breast Cancer Cells.

V. By: Demet Sag PhD CRA, GCP.  The Magic of the Pandora’s Box : Epigenetics and Stemness with Long non-coding RNAs (lincRNA).


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Author/Curator: Ritu Saxena, PhD

For several decades, research efforts have focused on targeting progression of cancer cells in primary tumors. Primary tumor cell targeting strategies include standard chemotherapy and immunotherapy and modulation of host microenvironment including tumor vasculature. However, cancer progression is comprised of both primary tumor growth and secondary metastasis (Langley RR and Fidler IJ. Tumor cell-organ microenvironment interactions in the pathogenesis of cancer metastasis. Endocr Rev. 2007 May;28(3):297-321; Owing to the property of unilimited cell division, cells in primary tumor increase rapidly in number and density and are able to favorably influence their microenvironment. Metastasis, on the other hand, depends on the ability of cancer cells to disseminate, circulate, adapt to the harsh environment and seed in different organs to establish secondary tumors. Although tumor cells are shed into the circulation in large numbers since early stages of tumor formation, few tumor cells can survive and proceed to overt metastasis. (Husemann Y et al. Systemic spread is an early step in breast cancer. Cancer Cell. 2008 Jan;13(1):58-68; Tight vascular wall barriers, unfavorable conditions for survival in distant organs, and a rate-limiting acquisition of organ colonization functions are just some of the impediments to the formation of distant metastasis (Chiang AC and Massagué J. Molecular basis of metastasis. N Engl J Med. 2008 Dec 25;359(26):2814-23;

It has been hypothesized that metastasis is initiated by a subpopulation of circulating tumor cells (CTC) found in the blood of patients. Therefore, understanding the function of CTC and targeting the CTC is gaining attention as a possible therapeutic avenue in carcinoma treatment.


Figure: Circulating tumor cells in the metastatic cascade

(Image source: Chaffer CL and Weinberg RA. Science 2011,331, pp. 1559-1564;

Isolation of CTC

Initial methods relied on the difference in physical properties of cells. When spun in a centrifuge, different cells in the blood sample settle in separate layers based on their byoyancy, and CTC are found in the white blood cell fraction. Because CTC are generally larger than white blood cells, a size-based filter could be used to separate the cell types (Vona G, et al, Isolation by size of epithelial tumor cells : a new method for the immunomorphological and molecular characterization of circulating tumor cells. Am J Pathol, 2000 Jan;156(1):57-63;

Herbert A Fritsche, PhD, Professor and Chief, Clinical Chemistry, Department of Laboratory Medicine, The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, demonstrated that the CTC can be captured using antibody labeled magnetic beads, either in positive or negative selection schema. After the circulating tumor cells are isolated, they may be characterized by immunohistochemistry and counted.  Alternatively, these cells may be characterized by gene expression analysis using RT-PCR. One of the CTC detection methods, Veridex Inc, Cell Search Assay, has been cleared by the US FDA for use as a prognostic test in patients with metastatic cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. This technology relies on the expression of epithelial cellular adhesion molecular (EpCAM) by epithelial cells and the isolation of these cells by immunomagnetic capture using anti-EpCAM antibodies.  Enriched CTC are identified by immunofluorescence. Martin Fleisher, PhD, Chair, Department of Clinical Laboratories, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center discussed in a webinar at the biomarker symposia, Cambridge Healthtech Institute, that every new technology has shortcomings, and the reliance on cancer cells to express sufficient EpCAM to enable capture may affect the role of this technology in future clinical use. Heterogeneous downregulation of epithelial surface antigen in invasive tumor cells has been reported. Thus, alternative methods to detect CTC are being developed. These new methods include-

  1. Flow cytometry that sorts cells by size and surface antigen expression.
  2. CTC microchips that are designed to capture CTC as whole blood flows past EpCAM-coated mirco-posts.
  3. Enrichment by filtration using filters with a pore size of 7-8 µm, that permits smaller red blood cell, leukocytes, and platelets to pass, but captures CTC that have diameters of about 12-15 µm.

Better identification of CTC

Baccelli et al (2013) developed a xenograft assay and demonstrated that the primary human luminal breast cancer CTC contain metastasis-initiated cells (MICs) that give rise to bone, lung and liver metastases in mice. These MIC-containing CTC populations expressed EPCAM, CD44, CD47 and MET. It was observed that in a small cohort of patients with metastases, the number of CTC expressing markers EPCAM,CD44, CD47 and MET, but not of bulk EPCAM+ CTC, correlated with lower overall survival and increased number of metastasic sites. These data describe functional circulating MICs and associated markers, which may aid the design of better tools to diagnose and treat metastatic breast cancer. The findings were published in the Nature Biotechnology journal recently (Baccelli I, et al. Identification of a population of blood circulating tumor cells from breast cancer patients that initiates metastasis in a xenograft assay. Nature Biotechnology 2013 31, 539–544;

CTC as prognostic and predictive factor for cancer progression

Martin Fleisher, PhD states “detecting CTC in peripheral blood of patients with cancer has become a clinically relevant and important prognostic biomarker and has been shown to be a predictive biomarker post-therapy. But, key to the use of CTC as a biomarker is the technology designed to enrich cancer cells from peripheral blood.”

Since CTC isolation methods started being established, correlation studies between the cells and a patient’s disease emerged. In 2004, investigators at the Department of Breast Medical Oncology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston, TX) discovered that the CTC were associated with disease progression and survival in metastatic breast cancer. The clinical trial recruited 177 patients with measurable metastatic breast cancer for levels of CTC both before the patients were to start a new line of treatment and at the first follow-up visit. The progression of the disease or the response to treatment was determined with the use of standard imaging studies at the participating centers. Patients in a training set with levels of CTC equal to or higher than 5 per 7.5 ml of whole blood, as compared with the group with fewer than 5 CTC per 7.5 ml, had a shorter median progression-free survival (2.7 months vs. 7.0 months, P<0.001) and shorter overall survival (10.1 months vs. >18 months, P<0.001). At the first follow-up visit after the initiation of therapy, this difference between the groups persisted (progression-free survival, 2.1 months vs. 7.0 months; P<0.001; overall survival, 8.2 months vs. >18 months; P<0.001), and the reduced proportion of patients (from 49 percent to 30 percent) in the group with an unfavorable prognosis suggested that there was a benefit from therapy.  Thus, the number of CTC was found to be an independent predictor of progression-free survival and overall survival in patients with metastatic breast cancer (Cristofanilli M, et al, Circulating tumor cells, disease progression, and survival in metastatic breast cancer. N Engl J Med. 2004 Aug 19;351(8):781-91;

Similar results have been observed in other cancer types, including prostate and colorectal cancer. The Cell Search System developed by Veridex LLC (Huntingdon Valley, PA) enumerated CTC from 7.5 mL of venous blood and was used to compare the outcomes from three prospective multicenter studies investigating the use of CTC to monitor patients undergoing treatment for metastatic breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer. Evaluation of CTC at anytime during the course of disease allowed assessment of patient prognosis and is predictive of overall survival (Miller MC, et al. Significance of Circulating Tumor Cells Detected by the CellSearch System in Patients with Metastatic Breast Colorectal and Prostate Cancer. J Oncol. 2010; In addition, the CTC test may permit the oncologist to make an early decision to discontinue first line therapy for metastatic breast cancer and pursue more aggressive alternative treatments.

Genetic analysis of CTC

Additional studies have analyzed the genetic mutations that the cells carry, comparing the mutations to those in a primary tumor or correlating the findings to a patient’s disease severity or spread. In one study, lung cancer patients whose CTC carried a mutation known to cause drug resistance had faster disease progression than those whose CTC lacked the mutation. The investigators analyzed the evolutionary aspect of cancer progression and studied the precursor cells of metastases directly for the identification of prognostic and therapeutic markers. Single disseminated cancer cells isolated from lymph nodes and bone marrow of 107 consecutive esophageal cancer patients were analyzed by whole-genome screening which revealed that primary tumors and lymphatically and hematogenously disseminated cancer cells diverged for most genetic aberrations. Chromosome 17q12-21, the region comprising HER2, was identified as the most frequent gain in disseminated tumor cells that were isolated from both ectopic sites. Furthermore, survival analysis demonstrated that HER2 gain in a single disseminated tumor cell but not in primary tumors conferred high risk for early death (Stoecklein NH, et al. Direct genetic analysis of single disseminated cancer cells for prediction of outcome and therapy selection in esophageal cancer. Cancer Cell. 2008 May;13(5):441-53;

The abovementioned studies indicate that CTC blood tests have been successfully used to track the severity of a cancer or efficacy of a treatment. In conclusion, the evolution of the CTC technology will be critical in the emerging area of targeted therapy.  With the development and use of new technologies, the links between the genomic information and CTC could be explored and established for targeted therapy.

Challenges in CTC research

  1. Potential clinical significance of CTC has been demonstrated as early detection, diagnostic, prognostic, predictive, surrogate, stratification, and pharmacodynamic biomarkers. Hong B and Zu Y (2013) discuss that “the role of CTC as a disease marker may be unique in different clinical conditions and should be carefully interpreted. A good example is the comparison between the prognostic and predictive biomarkers. Both biomarkers employ progression-free survival and overall survival for data interpretation; however, the prognostic biomarker is independent of specific drug treatment or therapy, and used for the determination of outcomes before treatment, while the predictive biomarker is related to a particular treatment to predict the response. Furthermore, inconsistent results are increasingly reported among the various CTC assay methods, specifically pertaining to results for the CTC detection rate, patient positivity rate, and the correlation between the presence of CTC and survival rate (Hong B and Zu Y. Detecting circulating tumor cells: current challenges and new trends. Source. Theranostics. 2013 Apr 23;3(6):377-94;
  2. Heterogeneity in CTC along with several other technical factors contribute to discordance, including the changes in methodology, lack of reference standard, spectrum and selection bias, operator variability and bias, sample size, blurred clinical impact with known clinical/pathologic data, use of diverse capture antibodies from different sources, lack of awareness of the pre-analytical phase, oversimplification of the cytopathology process, use of dichotomous decision criteria, etc (Sturgeon C. Limitations of assay techniques for tumor markers. In: (ed.) Diamandis EP, Fritsche HA, Lilja H, Chan DW, Schwartz MK. Tumor markers: physiology, pathobiology, technology, and clinical applications. Washington, DC: AACC Press. 2002:65-82; Gion M and Daidone MG. Circulating biomarkers from tumour bulk to tumour machinery: promises and pitfalls. Eur J Cancer. 2004;40(17):2613-2622; Therefore, employing a standard protocol is essential in order to minimize a lot of inconsistencies and technical errors.
  3. CTC in a small amount of blood sample might not represent the actual CTC count in the whole blood. In fact, it has been reported that the Cell Search system might undercount the number of CTC. Nagrath et al (2007) have demonstrated that the average CTC number per mL of whole blood is approximately 79-155 in various cancers (Nagrath S, et al. Isolation of rare circulating tumous cells in cancer patients by microchip technology. Nature. 2007;450(7173):1235-1239; In addition, an investigative CellSearch Profile approach (for research use only) detected an approximately 30-fold higher number of the median CTC in the same paired blood samples (Flores LM, et al. Improving the yield of circulating tumour cells facilitates molecular characterisation and recognition of discordant HER2 amplification in breast cancer. Br J Cancer. 2010;102(10):1495-502; Such measurement discrepancies indicate that the actual CTC numbers in the blood of patients could be at least 30-100 fold higher than that currently reported by the only FDA-cleared CellSearch system.

Thus, although promising, the CTC technology faces several challenges both in detection and interpretation, which has resulted in its limited clinical acceptance and use. In order to prepare the CTC technology for future widespread clinical acceptance, a comprehensive guideline for all phases of CTC technology development was published by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) Biomarkers Consortium. The guidelines describe methods for interactive comparisons of proprietary new technologies, clinical trial designs, a clinical validation qualification strategy, and an approach for effectively carrying out this work through a public-private partnership that includes test developers, drug developers, clinical trialists, the FDA and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) (Parkinson DR, et al. Considerations in the development of circulating tumor cell technology for clinical use. J Transl Med. 2012;10(1):138;


  1. Langley RR and Fidler IJ. Tumor cell-organ microenvironment interactions in the pathogenesis of cancer metastasis. Endocr Rev. 2007 May;28(3):297-321;
  2. Husemann Y et al. Systemic spread is an early step in breast cancer. Cancer Cell. 2008 Jan;13(1):58-68;
  3. Chiang AC and Massagué J. Molecular basis of metastasis. N Engl J Med. 2008 Dec 25;359(26):2814-23;
  4. Vona G, et al, Isolation by size of epithelial tumor cells : a new method for the immunomorphological and molecular characterization of circulating tumor cells. Am J Pathol, 2000 Jan;156(1):57-63;
  5. Baccelli I, et al. Identification of a population of blood circulating tumor cells from breast cancer patients that initiates metastasis in a xenograft assay. Nature Biotechnology 2013 31, 539–544;
  6. Cristofanilli M, et al, Circulating tumor cells, disease progression, and survival in metastatic breast cancer. N Engl J Med. 2004 Aug 19;351(8):781-91;
  7. Miller MC, et al. Significance of Circulating Tumor Cells Detected by the CellSearch System in Patients with Metastatic Breast Colorectal and Prostate Cancer. J Oncol. 2010;
  8. Stoecklein NH, et al. Direct genetic analysis of single disseminated cancer cells for prediction of outcome and therapy selection in esophageal cancer. Cancer Cell. 2008 May;13(5):441-53;
  9. Hong B and Zu Y. Detecting circulating tumor cells: current challenges and new trends. Source. Theranostics. 2013 Apr 23;3(6):377-94;
  10. 10. Sturgeon C. Limitations of assay techniques for tumor markers. In: (ed.) Diamandis EP, Fritsche HA, Lilja H, Chan DW, Schwartz MK. Tumor markers: physiology, pathobiology, technology, and clinical applications. Washington, DC: AACC Press. 2002:65-82
  11. Gion M and Daidone MG. Circulating biomarkers from tumour bulk to tumour machinery: promises and pitfalls. Eur J Cancer. 2004;40(17):2613-2622;
  12. Nagrath S, et al. Isolation of rare circulating tumous cells in cancer patients by microchip technology. Nature. 2007;450(7173):1235-1239;
  13. Flores LM, et al. Improving the yield of circulating tumour cells facilitates molecular characterisation and recognition of discordant HER2 amplification in breast cancer. Br J Cancer. 2010;102(10):1495-502;
  14. Chaffer CL and Weinberg RA. Science 2011,331, pp. 1559-1564;

Other related articles on circulation cells as biomarkers published on this Open Access Scientific Journal, include the following:

Blood-vessels-generating stem cells discovered

Ritu Saxena, PhD

Cardiovascular and circulating endothelial cells as BIOMARKERS for prediction of Disease progression risks

Statins’ Nonlipid Effects on Vascular Endothelium through eNOS Activation Curator, Author,Writer, Reporter: Larry Bernstein, MD, FCAP

Cardiovascular Outcomes: Function of circulating Endothelial Progenitor Cells (cEPCs): Exploring Pharmaco-therapy targeted at Endogenous Augmentation of cEPCs Author and Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Vascular Medicine and Biology: Macrovascular Disease – Therapeutic Potential of cEPCs Curator and Author: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Repair damaged blood vessels in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and trauma: Cellular Reprogramming amniotic fluid-derived cells into Endothelial Cells

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Stem cells in therapy

A possible light by Stem cell therapy in painful dark of Osteoarthritis” – Kartogenin, a small molecule, differentiates stem cells to chondrocyte, healthy cartilage cells Author and Reporter: Anamika Sarkar, Ph.D and Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

Human embryonic pluripotent stem cells and healing post-myocardial infarctionAuthor: Larry H. Bernstein, MD

Stem cells create new heart cells in baby mice, but not in adults, study showsReporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Stem cells for the rescue of mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson’s diseaseReporter: Ritu Saxena, Ph.D.

Stem Cell Research — The Frontier is at the Technion in Israel Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Research articles by MA Gaballa, PhD

Harris DT, Badowski M, Nafees A, Gaballa MAThe potential of Cord Blood Stem Cells for Use in Regenerative Medicine. Expert Opinion in Biological Therapy 2007. Sept 7(9): 1131-22.

Furfaro E, Gaballa MADo adult stem cells ameliorate the damaged myocardium?. Human cord blood as a potential source of stem cells. Current Vascular Pharmacology 2007, 5; 27-44.


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