Growing tumor vessels: more than one way to skin a cat - implications for angiogenesis targeted cancer therapies

Mol Aspects Med. 2011 Apr;32(2):71-87. doi: 10.1016/j.mam.2011.04.001. Epub 2011 Apr 22.


The establishment of a functional, integrated vascular system is instrumental for tissue growth and homeostasis. Without blood vessels no adequate nutrition and oxygen would be provided to cells, nor could the undesired waste products be efficiently removed. Blood vessels constitute therefore one of the largest and most complex body network whose assembly depends on the precise balance of growth factors acting in a complementary and coordinated manner with cells of several identities. However, the vessels that are crucial for life can also foster death, given their involvement in cancer progression towards malignancy and metastasis. Targeting tumor vasculature has thus arisen as an appealing anti-cancer therapeutic approach. Since the milestone achievements that vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) blockade suppressed angiogenesis and tumor growth in mice and prolonged the survival of cancer patients when administered in combination with chemotherapy, the clinical development of anti-VEGF(R) drugs has accelerated remarkably. FDA has approved the use of bevacizumab - a humanized monoclonal antibody against VEGF - in colorectal, lung and metastatic breast cancers in combination with standard chemotherapy. Additional broad-spectrum VEGF receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors, such as sunitinib and sorafenib, are used in monotherapy for metastatic renal carcinoma, while sunitinib is also approved for imatinib resistant gastrointestinal stromal tumors and sorafenib for advanced stage hepatocellular carcinoma. Nevertheless, the survival benefit offered by VEGF(R) blockers, either as single agents or in combination with chemotherapy, is calculated merely in the order of months. Posterior studies in preclinical models have reported that despite reducing primary tumor growth, the inhibition of VEGF increased tumor invasiveness and metastasis. The clinical implications of these findings urge the need to reconcile these conflicting results. Anti-angiogenic therapy represents a significant step forth in cancer therapy and in our understanding of cancer biology, but it is also clear that we need to learn how to use it. What is the biological consequence of VEGF-blockade? Does VEGF inhibition starve the tumor to death - as initially postulated - or does it rather foster malignancy? Can anti-VEGF(R) therapy favor tumor vessel formation by VEGF-independent means? Tumors are very diverse and plastic entities, able to adapt to the harshest conditions; this is also reflected by the tumor vasculature. Lessons from the bench to the bedside and vice versa have taught us that the diversity of signals underlying tumor vessel growth will likely be responsive (or resistant) to distinct therapeutic approaches. In this review, we propose a reflection of the different strategies tumors use to grow blood vessels and how these can have impact on the (un)success of current anti-angiogenic therapies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Angiogenesis Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / pathology
  • Neoplasms / blood supply*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic / drug therapy*


  • Angiogenesis Inhibitors
  • Antineoplastic Agents