Regulation, function and clinical significance of heparanase in cancer metastasis and angiogenesis

Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2006;38(12):2018-39. doi: 10.1016/j.biocel.2006.06.004. Epub 2006 Jul 6.


Heparanase is an endoglycosidase which cleaves heparan sulfate (HS) and hence participates in degradation and remodeling of the extracellular matrix (ECM). Heparanase is preferentially expressed in human tumors and its over-expression in tumor cells confers an invasive phenotype in experimental animals. The enzyme also releases angiogenic factors from the ECM and thereby induces an angiogenic response in vivo. Heparanase upregulation correlates with increased tumor vascularity and poor post-operative survival of cancer patients. Heparanase is synthesized as a 65 kDa inactive precursor that undergoes proteolytic cleavage, yielding 8 and 50 kDa protein subunits that heterodimerize to form an active enzyme. Human heparanase is localized primarily within late endosomes and lysosomes and occasionally on the cell surface and within the cell nucleus. Transcriptional activity of the heparanase promoter is stimulated by demethylation, early growth response 1 (EGR1) transcription factor, estrogen, inflammatory cytokines and inactivation of p53. N-acetylated glycol-split species of heparin as well as siRNA heparanase gene silencing inhibit tumor metastasis and angiogenesis in experimental models. These observations and the unexpected identification of a single functional heparanase, suggest that the enzyme is a promising target for anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drug development. Heparanase exhibits also non-enzymatic activities, independent of its involvement in ECM degradation and changes in the extracellular microenvironment. For example, cell surface expression of heparanase elicits a firm cell adhesion, reflecting an involvement in cell-ECM interaction. Heparanase enhances Akt signaling and stimulates PI3K- and p38-dependent endothelial cell migration and invasion. It also promotes VEGF expression via the Src pathway. The enzyme may thus activate endothelial cells and elicits angiogenic and survival responses. Studies with heparanase over-expressing transgenic mice revealed that the enzyme functions in normal processes involving cell mobilization, HS turnover, tissue vascularization and remodeling. In this review, we summarize the current status of heparanase research, emphasizing molecular and cellular aspects of the enzyme, including its mode of processing and activation, control of heparanase gene expression, enzymatic and non-enzymatic functions, and causal involvement in cancer metastasis and angiogenesis. We also discuss clinical aspects and strategies for the development of heparanase inhibitors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Progression
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic*
  • Glucuronidase / biosynthesis
  • Glucuronidase / chemistry
  • Glucuronidase / genetics*
  • Glucuronidase / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis*
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic / enzymology*


  • heparanase
  • Glucuronidase