Infoscience

Thesis

The interplay between the VEGF-C/VEGFR-3 axis and CCL21/CCR7 axis in tumor cell invasion

There are two main routes for tumor spread and metastasis, the blood vasculature and the lymphatic system. A wide range of human carcinomas, including lung, colon and breast cancer, spread to distant sites via the lymphatic system. Preclinical and clinical studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between the incidence of lymph node metastasis and the secretion of vascular endothelial growth factor-C (VEGF-C) by tumor cells. Indeed, VEGF-C is critical for the formation of new lymphatic vessels in a process called lymphangiogenesis, suggesting this mechanism as the main "escape route" for tumor cells. However, many studies have failed to identify functional lymphatic vessels inside tumors, and much research has demonstrated that metastasis can occur in the absence of lymphangiogenesis. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that many tumor cells may express vascular endothelial growth factor receptor-3 (VEGFR-3), the primary receptor for VEGF-C, suggesting that autologous VEGFR-3 signaling loops may enhance the invasive and metastatic potential of tumor cells. Other than lymphangiogenic factors, the lymphatic homing chemokine receptor CCR7 is strongly correlated to lymph node metastasis, suggesting that tumor cells mimic dendritic cells in sensing and homing to lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. Potential mechanisms underlying these observations have not been elucidated. Using several in vitro 3D models, we examined the interactions between tumor and lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs) to gain insight into the mechanistic roles of VEGF-C and CCR7-mediated tumor cell invasion towards lymphatics as well as elucidate their potential interplay. All the designed experimental setups utilized a 3D matrix for a more physiologically relevant chemokine and growth factor signaling environment. For example, we designed one culture model where tumor cells are seeded in one gel compartment and lymphatic endothelial cells in a horizontally adjacent one, allowing both cell types to establish contact through soluble mediators without being initially mixed while simultaneously allowing direct visualization of their interactions. We first demonstrated that receptor expression patterns by cells are strongly influenced by the extracellular matrix (ECM). Indeed, while we failed to detect tumor expression of VEGFR-3 in 2D conditions, we found both expression and phosphorylation of VEGFR-3 in three of four tumor cell lines tested. Furthermore, in the three VEGFR-3 positive cell lines, invasive capacity and chemoattraction towards lymphatics was demonstrated to be dependent on both VEGF-C secretion and CCR7 expression by the tumor cells. We found that VEGF-C could act in both an autocrine manner, by enhancing the migratory and invasive capacity of tumor cells, and in a paracrine manner where it enhances CCL21 secretion by LECs to promote the chemoinvasion of tumor cells via CCL21 secretion. The same mechanism was also tested in vivo by injecting VEGF-C into mouse skin: VEGF-C, but not saline nor VEGF-A, caused marked upregulation of CCL21 associated with lymphatic vessels. In this way, VEGF-C and CCR7 act synergistically to promote the invasive phenotype of tumor cells. Additionally, we uncovered a new and critical role for VEGFR-3 on mammary epithelial cells. We demonstrated that the receptor is involved in epithelial tubulogenesis in a collagen matrix, and furthermore, it helps to preserve the integrity of a mammary cell layer (since blocking the receptor leads to increased epithelial permeability). In conclusion, this work highlights the importance of the VEGFR-3/VEGF-C and CCR7/CCL21 axis in promoting tumor cell migration and invasion. It also shows that VEGFR-3 may play many roles in the process of tumorigenesis and metastasis.

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