Date: 30 Aug 2012

Insights into the Regulation of Tumor Dormancy by Angiogenesis in Experimental Tumors

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Abstract

While it is well established that an angiogenic switch marks escape from tumor dormancy in xenograft models, the molecular pathways involved in the control of tumor cell proliferation or survival by angiogenesis remain substantially uncharted. We recently demonstrated that signals stemming from angiogenic endothelial cells (EC) regulate the behavior of dormant cancer cells. Specifically, we observed that the Notch ligand Dll4, induced by angiogenic factors in EC, triggers Notch3 activation in neighboring tumor cells and promotes a tumorigenic phenotype. Evidence that Notch signaling is involved in tumor dormancy was further strengthened by the observation that MKP-1 levels—a broadly expressed phosphatase—are controlled by Notch3 by regulation of protein ubiquitination and stability. Notch3 and MKP-1 levels are consistently low in dormant tumors, and this is accompanied by relatively high levels of phosphorylated p38, a canonical MKP-1 target previously associated with maintenance of tumor dormancy. These results elucidate a novel angiogenesis-driven mechanism involving the Notch and MAPK pathways that controls tumor dormancy. More in general, angiogenic EC could form part of the vascular niche, a specialized microenvironment which appears to regulate metastatic outgrowth and future studies are needed to clarify the contribution of EC in the regulation of cancer stem cell behavior in the niche.

The notion that EC could communicate signals to tumor cells raises questions about the possibility of achieving tumor dormancy by counteracting angiogenesis. In experimental tumors, anti-VEGF drugs typically prune the newly formed vasculature, thus reducing microvessel density, blood flow, and perfusion. These drugs eventually increase hypoxia and cause tumor necrosis but dormancy is rarely observed. Our group recently reported that anti-VEGF therapy causes a dramatic depletion of glucose and an exhaustion of ATP levels in tumors. Moreover, we found that the central metabolic checkpoint LKB1/AMPK—a cellular sensor of ATP levels that supports cell viability in response to energy stress—is activated by anti-VEGF therapy in experimental tumors and it has a key role in induction of sustained tumor regression. These functional links between activation of the LKB1/AMPK by anti-angiogenic therapy and tumor dormancy suggest a role for metabolism in the regulation of this phenomenon.