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Reprogrammed macrophages promote spread of breast cancer

No. 25 | 25/04/2022 | by Koh

Metastatic breast cancer cells abuse macrophages, a type of immune cell, to promote the settlement of cancer metastases in the lungs. The reprogrammed macrophages stimulate blood vessel cells to secrete a cocktail of metastasis-promoting proteins that are part of the so-called metastatic niche. This was demonstrated by scientists from the German Cancer Research Center and the Stem Cell Institute HI-STEM* in mice that had been transplanted with human breast cancer cells. The work enabled the scientists to identify new targets and develop initial concepts to better restrain the metastatic spread of breast cancer.

Early lung metastasis in a mouse: arrows indicate metastatic breast cancer cells (brown) colonizing the lung (blue). Cell nuclei are stained dark blue.
© Oskarsson /HI-STEM and DKFZ

Cancer spreads within the body as individual cells detach from the primary tumor and travel to distant body regions via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Before they can grow into a metastasis at a secondary site, they must communicate with their new environment through a variety of molecular interactions. "In order to settle in this new, hostile milieu, the cancer cells corrupt the microenvironment to support their growth," says Thordur Oskarsson of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the stem cell institute HI-STEM. Researchers refer to this as the tumor cells creating a "metastatic niche."

Blood vessels play a very special role in metastasis. Detached tumor cells prefer to stay in their immediate vicinity. In particular, the interactions of cancer cells with the endothelial cells lining the inside of the vessels are crucial for metastasis, as many studies have already shown. However, the details of this molecular exchange are still largely unknown.

A team led by Oskarsson has now investigated these interactions during metastatic colonization of the lung by breast cancer cells in mice. The researchers first observed that four genes in the lung endothelial cells showed a particularly strong increase in activity three weeks after the onset of metastasis. They encode four proteins that are secreted into the microenvironment (Inhbb, Lama1, Scgb3a1 and Opg**), which both individually and in combination promote the development of lung metastases. Inhbb and Scgb3a1 confer stem cell properties to cancer cells, Opg prevents programmed cell death – apoptosis – and Lama1 supports adhesion-mediated cell survival. Importantly, high expression of these four newly identified niche factors correlates with both shortened relapse-free survival and shortened overall survival of breast cancer patients.

But how do cancer cells get the lung endothelium to produce the metastasis-promoting protein cocktail? To the surprise of the scientists, the cancer cells do not do this job directly themselves, but instead harness a cell type of the innate immune system for this purpose, the macrophages.

"These macrophages, which often reside in the vicinity of the lung blood vessels, are activated by tenascin, an extracellular matrix protein produced by breast cancer cells," explains Tsunaki Hongu, the first author of the study. Tenascin is involved in disease progression in many cancers. After activation by tenascin, macrophages produce various factors that induce the production of the cancer-promoting protein cocktail in endothelial cells. By eliminating macrophages or their activity, using specific molecular agents, the investigators could show that these cells are crucial for production of the metastasis-promoting protein cocktail.

Oskarsson, who recently joined the faculty of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, summarizes: "The complexity of the crosstalk between cancer cells, macrophages and endothelial cells is striking. With a better understanding of the numerous proteins and other factors involved in these metastatic interactions, we were able to identify a variety of starting points for new strategies against breast cancer metastasis. We have already developed initial therapeutic concepts for this, which we now need to validate in further studies."

Tsunaki Hongu, Maren Pein, Jacob Insua-Rodriguez, Ewgenija Gutjahr, Greta Mattavelli, Jasmin Meier, Kristin Decker, Arnaud Descot, Matthias Bozza, Richard Harbottle, Andreas Trumpp, Hans-Peter Sinn, Angela Riedel and Thordur Oskarsson: Perivascular tenascin C triggers sequential activation of macrophages and endothelial cells to generate a pro-metastatic vascular niche in the lungs
Nature Cancer 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s43018-022-00353-6

A photo is available for download at: 

Early lung metastasis in a mouse: arrows indicate metastatic breast cancer cells (brown) colonizing the lung (blue). Cell nuclei are stained dark blue.

Note on use of images related to press releases
Use is free of charge. The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) permits one-time use in the context of reporting about the topic covered in the press release. Images have to be cited as follows: "Source: Oskarsson /HI-STEM and DKFZ".
Distribution of images to third parties is not permitted unless prior consent has been obtained from DKFZ's Press Office (phone: ++49-(0)6221 42 2854, E-mail: Any commercial use is prohibited.

* The Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM) gGmbH was founded in 2008 as a public-private partnership by the DKFZ and the Dietmar Hopp Foundation.

** Inhbb: Inhibin Beta B
Lama1: Laminin Subunit Alpha 1
Scgb3a1: Secretoglobin 3A1
Opg: Osteoprotegerin

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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