Identification of fibroblast heterogeneity in the tumor microenvironment

Cancer Biol Ther. 2006 Dec;5(12):1640-6. doi: 10.4161/cbt.5.12.3354. Epub 2006 Dec 5.


Tumors are unorganized organs that contain many different cell types. In the recent years, many studies have reported that primary tumors contain fibroblasts/myofibroblasts (carcinoma-associated fibroblasts), mesenchymal cells such as pericytes/mural cells and other vascular smooth muscle cells. Several different markers are used routinely to identify carcinoma-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) such as alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA), vimentin, S100A4 protein/fibroblast specific protein-1 (FSP1) and type I collagen. Likewise markers such as platelet derived growth factor receptor-beta (PDGFRbeta) and NG2 chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (NG2) are used to identify mesenchymal cells such as pericytes and other vasculature associated smooth muscle cells. It is still unknown whether these markers overlap with each other or identify a unique population of cells within the tumor microenvironment. Therefore in the present study we utilized two different mouse models of cancer, the Rip1Tag2 mice that develop progressive pancreatic cancer and an orthotopic 4T1 breast cancer model, to study the overlap between six different mesenchymal markers commonly used in mouse cancer research. Our study demonstrates that among all the markers, S100A4/FSP1 identifies a unique population of fibroblasts with minimal overlap with markers for alphaSMA, PDGFRbeta and NG2. Vimentin and type I collagen are not specific markers for fibroblasts in these tumors. alphaSMA, PDGFRbeta and NG2 significantly overlap with each other in identifying a mixed population of fibroblasts (activated or resting), myofibroblasts, pericytes and vascular smooth muscle cells. Collectively, this study demonstrates that tumor microenvironment associated fibroblasts are a heterogeneous population and thus, the use of alphaSMA or vimentin as the only markers will not identify all the CAFs.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Actins / genetics
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Fibroblasts / pathology*
  • Genetic Markers
  • Humans
  • Mammary Neoplasms, Animal / pathology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology


  • Actins
  • Genetic Markers