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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Nov 26;110(48):19402-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311939110. Epub 2013 Nov 11.

Emergence of spatial structure in the tumor microenvironment due to the Warburg effect.

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Computational Biology Program, Cancer Biology and Genetics Program, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY 10065.


Drastic metabolic alterations, such as the Warburg effect, are found in most if not all types of malignant tumors. Emerging evidence shows that cancer cells benefit from these alterations, but little is known about how they affect noncancerous stromal cells within the tumor microenvironment. Here we show that cancer cells are better adapted to metabolic changes in the microenvironment, leading to the emergence of spatial structure. A clear example of tumor spatial structure is the localization of tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs), one of the most common stromal cell types found in tumors. TAMs are enriched in well-perfused areas, such as perivascular and cortical regions, where they are known to potentiate tumor growth and invasion. However, the mechanisms of TAM localization are not completely understood. Computational modeling predicts that gradients--of nutrients, gases, and metabolic by-products such as lactate--emerge due to altered cell metabolism within poorly perfused tumors, creating ischemic regions of the tumor microenvironment where TAMs struggle to survive. We tested our modeling prediction in a coculture system that mimics the tumor microenvironment. Using this experimental approach, we showed that a combination of metabolite gradients and differential sensitivity to lactic acid is sufficient for the emergence of macrophage localization patterns in vitro. This suggests that cancer metabolic changes create a microenvironment where tumor cells thrive over other cells. Understanding differences in tumor-stroma sensitivity to these alterations may open therapeutic avenues against cancer.


image analysis; mathematical model; tumor adaptation

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