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Cancer Lett. 2007 Dec 18;258(2):155-64. Epub 2007 Oct 30.

Cannibalism: a way to feed on metastatic tumors.

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Department of Drug Research and Evaluation, Section of Pharmacogenetic, Drug Resistance and Experimental Therapeutic, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy.


Cannibalism of tumors is an old story for pathologists, but it remained a mystery for at least one century. Recent data highlighted tumor cannibalism as a key advantage in tumor malignancy, possibly involved in resistance of tumors to the specific immune reaction. However, new data suggests also that metastatic tumor cells may use this peculiar function to feed in conditions of low nutrient supply. This makes malignant cancer cells more similar to microorganisms, rather than to normal cells undergoing malignant transformation. In cytological or histological samples of human tumors it is common to detect cells with one or many vacuoles, possibly containing cells under degradation, that push the nucleus to the periphery giving it the shape of a crescent moon. The cannibal cells may feed on sibling tumor cells, but also of the lymphocytes that should kill them. Cannibal cells eat everything without distinguishing between the feeding materials, with a mechanism that mostly differ from typical phagocytosis. Despite such phenomenon is considered mainly non-selective, a molecular framework of factors that contribute to cannibalism has been described. This machinery includes the presence of an acidic environment that allows a continuous activation of specific lytic enzymes, such as cathepsin B. Cannibalism occurs in apparently well defined structures whose main actors are big caveolar-like vacuoles and a connection between caveolin-1 and the actin cytoskeleton through the actin-linker molecule ezrin. Each of the components of the cannibal framework may represent specific tumor targets for future new strategies against cancer.

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