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Am J Pathol. 2002 Mar;160(3):985-1000.

Abnormalities in pericytes on blood vessels and endothelial sprouts in tumors.

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Department of Anatomy and Cardiovascular Research Institute and Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, San Francisco, California 94143-0130, USA.


Endothelial cells of tumor vessels have well-documented alterations, but it is less clear whether pericytes on these vessels are abnormal or even absent. Here we report that alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA) and desmin-immunoreactive pericytes were present on >97% of blood vessels viewed by confocal microscopy in 100-microm-thick sections of three different spontaneous or implanted tumors in mice. However, the cells had multiple abnormalities. Unlike pericytes on capillaries in normal pancreatic islets, which had desmin but not alpha-SMA immunoreactivity, pericytes on capillary-size vessels in insulinomas in RIP-Tag2 transgenic mice expressed both desmin and alpha-SMA. Furthermore, pericytes in RIP-Tag2 tumors, as well as those in MCa-IV breast carcinomas and Lewis lung carcinomas, had an abnormally loose association with endothelial cells and extended cytoplasmic processes deep into the tumor tissue. alpha-SMA-positive pericytes also covered 73% of endothelial sprouts in RIP-Tag2 tumors and 92% of sprouts in the other tumors. Indeed, pericyte sleeves were significantly longer than the CD31-immunoreactive endothelial cell sprouts themselves in all three types of tumors. All three tumors also contained alpha-SMA-positive myofibroblasts that resembled pericytes but were not associated with blood vessels. We conclude that pericytes are present on most tumor vessels but have multiple abnormalities, including altered expression of marker proteins. In contrast to some previous studies, the almost ubiquitous presence of pericytes on tumor vessels found in the present study may be attributed to our use of both desmin and alpha-SMA as markers and 100-microm-thick tissue sections. The association of pericytes with endothelial sprouts raises the possibility of an involvement in sprout growth or retraction in tumors.

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