Role of tissue stroma in cancer cell invasion

J Pathol. 2003 Jul;200(4):429-47. doi: 10.1002/path.1398.


Maintenance of epithelial tissues needs the stroma. When the epithelium changes, the stroma inevitably follows. In cancer, changes in the stroma drive invasion and metastasis, the hallmarks of malignancy. Stromal changes at the invasion front include the appearance of myofibroblasts, cells sharing characteristics with fibroblasts and smooth muscle cells. The main precursors of myofibroblasts are fibroblasts. The transdifferentiation of fibroblasts into myofibroblasts is modulated by cancer cell-derived cytokines, such as transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta). TGF-beta causes cancer progression through paracrine and autocrine effects. Paracrine effects of TGF-beta implicate stimulation of angiogenesis, escape from immunosurveillance and recruitment of myofibroblasts. Autocrine effects of TGF-beta in cancer cells with a functional TGF-beta receptor complex may be caused by a convergence between TGF-beta signalling and beta-catenin or activating Ras mutations. Experimental and clinical observations indicate that myofibroblasts produce pro-invasive signals. Such signals may also be implicated in cancer pain. N-Cadherin and its soluble form act as invasion-promoters. N-Cadherin is expressed in invasive cancer cells and in host cells such as myofibroblasts, neurons, smooth muscle cells, and endothelial cells. N-Cadherin-dependent heterotypic contacts may promote matrix invasion, perineural invasion, muscular invasion, and transendothelial migration; the extracellular, the juxtamembrane and the beta-catenin binding domain of N-cadherin are implicated in positive invasion signalling pathways. A better understanding of stromal contributions to cancer progression will likely increase our awareness of the importance of the combinatorial signals that support and promote growth, dedifferentiation, invasion, and ectopic survival and eventually result in the identification of new therapeutics targeting the stroma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cadherins / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix / pathology*
  • Fibroblasts / pathology
  • Humans
  • Muscle Cells / pathology
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Pain / pathology
  • Receptors, Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Stromal Cells / metabolism
  • Stromal Cells / pathology*
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism


  • Cadherins
  • Receptors, Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta