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Int J Cell Biol. 2011;2011:470597. doi: 10.1155/2011/470597. Epub 2011 Nov 29.

When Cells Suffocate: Autophagy in Cancer and Immune Cells under Low Oxygen.

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Deeley Research Centre, BC Cancer Agency, 2410 Lee Avenue, Victoria, BC, Canada V8R 6V5.


Hypoxia is a signature feature of growing tumors. This cellular state creates an inhospitable condition that impedes the growth and function of all cells within the immediate and surrounding tumor microenvironment. To adapt to hypoxia, cells activate autophagy and undergo a metabolic shift increasing the cellular dependency on anaerobic metabolism. Autophagy upregulation in cancer cells liberates nutrients, decreases the buildup of reactive oxygen species, and aids in the clearance of misfolded proteins. Together, these features impart a survival advantage for cancer cells in the tumor microenvironment. This observation has led to intense research efforts focused on developing autophagy-modulating drugs for cancer patient treatment. However, other cells that infiltrate the tumor environment such as immune cells also encounter hypoxia likely resulting in hypoxia-induced autophagy. In light of the fact that autophagy is crucial for immune cell proliferation as well as their effector functions such as antigen presentation and T cell-mediated killing of tumor cells, anticancer treatment strategies based on autophagy modulation will need to consider the impact of autophagy on the immune system.

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