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BMC Cancer. 2018 Jun 19;18(1):670. doi: 10.1186/s12885-018-4587-z.

TGF-β signaling promotes tumor vasculature by enhancing the pericyte-endothelium association.

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Department of Cancer Genetics, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, 14263, USA.
Department of Cell Stress Biology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, USA.
Department of Pathology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, USA.
Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, USA.
Department of Cancer Genetics, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, 14263, USA.



The breast cancer microenvironment promotes tumor vascularization through the complex interactions involving tumor-associated fibroblasts (TAFs). Emerging data indicate that TAFs increase production and signaling by TGF-β cytokines, while the role of TGF-β signaling in the regulation of tumor blood vessels is not fully understood. The current study presents evidence that TAFs enhance the organization of tumor blood capillaries, and TGF-β signaling plays an important role in this response.


Tumor vascularization was studied in xenograft models of breast carcinoma cells, alone and in combination with fibroblasts. TGF-β signaling in breast cancer cells was modulated by expression of kinase-inactive TGFBR1-K232R (dnTGFBR1) or constitutive-active TGFBR1-T204D (caTGFBR1) receptor mutants. The architecture of tumor blood capillaries was assessed by immune-histochemical analysis of endothelium and pericytes. The role of TGF-β-Smad signaling in fibronectin expression was examined using adenoviral transduction of signaling components.


Our studies revealed that TAFs significantly increase the lumen size of blood microvessels. Inactivation of TGF-β signaling in tumor cells by dnTGFBR1 reduced the microvessel density and lumen sizes, decreasing tumor growth. In contrast, caTGFBR1-tumors exhibited greater vessel density and lumen sizes. Tumors with inactive dnTGFBR1 showed lower amounts of TAFs, while caTGFBR1 increased amounts of TAFs compared to the control. Inspection of pericytes and endothelial cells in tumor vasculature revealed that TAFs enhanced vessel coverage by pericytes, vascular cells supporting capillaries. This effect was impaired in dnTGFBR1-tumors, whereas active caTGFBR1 enhanced the association of pericytes with endothelium. Accordingly, dnTGFBR1-tumors exhibited the presence of hemorrhages, a sign of fragile blood vessels. Biochemical analysis showed that TGFBR1-SMAD signaling up-regulates fibronectin, a prominent regulator of endothelium-pericyte interactions.


The current study indicates that tumor-fibroblast crosstalk enhances tumor vascularization by increasing the pericyte-endothelium association via a mechanism involving the TGFβ-fibronectin axis. The tumor-fibroblast model represents a useful system for dissecting the complex interactions governing tumor angiogenesis and developing new approaches to therapeutic targeting tumor vasculature.


Breast cancer; Fibronectin; Pericytes; TGF-beta; Tumor angiogenesis; Tumor microenvironment; Tumor-associated fibroblasts

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