Neutrophils promote motility of cancer cells via a hyaluronan-mediated TLR4/PI3K activation loop

J Pathol. 2011 Nov;225(3):438-47. doi: 10.1002/path.2947. Epub 2011 Aug 8.


Inflammation is a component of tumour progression mechanisms. Neutrophils are a common inflammatory infiltrate in many tumours, but their regulation and functions in neoplasia are not understood. We recently demonstrated that pro-inflammatory IL-17-producing cells recruited blood neutrophils into the peritumoural stroma of hepatocellular carcinoma by epithelium-derived CXC chemokines. Here we show that a substantial population of neutrophils accumulates in the peritumoural stroma of hepatocellular, cervical, colorectal, and gastric carcinomas, and that this correlates with metastases in hepatocellular and gastric carcinomas. Exposure of neutrophils to culture supernatants from several types of solid tumour cells (TSN) resulted in sustained survival and pro-tumourigenic effects of cells. Kinetic experiments reveal that, shortly after exposure to TSN, neutrophils began to provoke activation and then produced significant inflammatory cytokines and expressed more anti-apoptotic Mcl-1 but less pro-apoptotic Bax. These long-lived neutrophils effectively enhanced the cancer cell motility via a contact-dependent mechanism; this effect, together with early activation and subsequent longevity of TSN-exposed neutrophils, could be reversed by blocking the activation of PI3K/Akt signalling in neutrophils. Moreover, we found that hyaluronan (HA) fragments constitute a common factor produced by various tumours that mimics the effect of TSN to induce long-lived neutrophils and subsequent malignant cell migration. The effects of TSN were inhibited by function blocking interactions between HA and its receptor TLR4 on neutrophils, suggesting that this is a key signalling pathway involved. These results indicate that HA derived from malignant cells educates neutrophils to adopt an activated phenotype, and in that way stimulates the metastasis of malignant cells, which represents a positive regulatory loop between tumours and their stroma during neoplastic progression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Movement / physiology
  • Cell Survival / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyaluronic Acid / physiology*
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neutrophil Activation / physiology
  • Neutrophils / physiology*
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4 / physiology*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • TLR4 protein, human
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4
  • Hyaluronic Acid
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases