Can cancer be reversed by engineering the tumor microenvironment?, 2008

Topics: fascia, mechanical, extracellular matrix, stroma, cell traction, cytoskeleton, cancer therapy

Authors: Donald E. Ingber


To advance cancer research in a transformative way, we must redefine the problem. Although epithelial cancers, such as breast cancer, may be caused by random somatic gene mutations, the reality is that this is only one of many ways to induce tumor formation. Cancers also can be produced in experimental systems in vitro and in vivo, for example, by inducing sustained alterations of extracellular matrix (ECM) structure. Moreover, certain epithelial cancers can be induced to ‘reboot’ and regenerate normal tissue morphology when combined with embryonic mesenchyme or exogenous ECM scaffolds that are produced through epithelial-stromal interactions. At the same time, work in the field of Mechanical Biology has revealed that many cell behaviors critical for cancer formation (e.g., growth, differentiation, motility, apoptosis) can be controlled by physical interactions between cells and their ECM adhesions that alter the mechanical force balance in the ECM, cell and cytoskeleton. Epithelial tumor progression also can be induced in vitro by changing ECM mechanics or altering cytoskeletal tension generation through manipulation of the Rho GTPase signaling pathway. Mechanical interactions between capillary cells and ECM that are mediated by Rho signaling similarly mediate control of capillary cell growth and angiogenesis, which are equally critical for cancer progression and metastasis. These findings question basic assumptions in the cancer field, and raise the intriguing possibility that cancer may be a reversible disease that results from progressive deregulation of tissue architecture, which leads to physical changes in cells and altered mechanical signaling. This perspective raises the possibility of developing a tissue engineering approach to cancer therapy in which biologically inspired materials that mimic the embryonic microenvironment are used to induce cancers to revert into normal tissues.

Related research articles