Background: Blood vessels supplying tumors are hyperpermeable to macromolecules, but the mechanisms responsible are poorly understood.
Experimental design: To investigate the structural basis for the leakiness of tumor blood vessels, we performed a transmission electron microscopic study of three syngeneic transplantable carcinomas (mouse ovarian carcinoma and the line 1 and line 10 bile duct guinea pig carcinomas) at early intervals after intravenous injection of several macromolecular tracers. Tracers with widely differing physical properties were studied: horseradish peroxidase, ferritin, 150 kilodalton fluorescein isothiocyanate-dextran and gold-bovine serum albumin.
Results: All tracers leaked primarily from venules and small veins at the tumor-host interface, for the most part vessels lined by a continuous endothelium. The predominant pathway by which all four tracers exited venules in all three tumors was by way of a system of smooth membrane-bound, interconnecting vesicles and vacuoles; these tended to cluster together at irregular intervals in the endothelial cell cytoplasm to form organelle-like structures, vesiculo-vacuolar organelles (VVO). In favorable sections, VVO interfaced with both the luminal and abluminal surfaces of endothelial cells. HRP alone crossed venules and small veins through apposed inter-endothelial cell junctions. Tracers also exited vessels by way of endothelial fenestrae where these occurred (rarely) in mouse ovarian tumor-associated venules. VVO occurred with similar frequency and complexity in the continuous endothelium-lined venules and small veins that supplied the normal subcutis of either tumor-bearing or control animals. As in tumor-associated vessels, VVO provided the predominant pathway by which all four tracers exited normal vessels, but VVO labeling and extravasation were both much greater in tumor than in control vessels (p < 0.001 for ferritin).
Conclusions: VVO are prominent structures in both tumor-supplying and control vessel endothelial cells and provide the primary pathway for macromolecular extravasation. The large increase in permeability characteristic of tumor vessels is likely attributable to upregulation of VVO function.