Background: Several stromal cell subtypes including macrophages contribute to tumor progression by inducing epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) at the invasive front, a mechanism also linked to metastasis. Tumor associated macrophages (TAM) reside mainly at the invasive front but they also infiltrate tumors and in this process they mainly assume a tumor promoting phenotype. In this study, we asked if TAMs also regulate EMT intratumorally. We found that TAMs through TGF-β signaling and activation of the β-catenin pathway can induce EMT in intratumoral cancer cells.
Methods: We depleted macrophages in F9-teratocarcinoma bearing mice using clodronate-liposomes and analyzed the tumors for correlations between gene and protein expression of EMT-associated and macrophage markers. The functional relationship between TAMs and EMT was characterized in vitro in the murine F9 and mammary gland NMuMG cells, using a conditioned medium culture approach. The clinical relevance of our findings was evaluated on a tissue microarray cohort representing 491 patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Results: Gene expression analysis of F9-teratocarcinomas revealed a positive correlation between TAM-densities and mesenchymal marker expression. Moreover, immunohistochemistry showed that TAMs cluster with EMT phenotype cells in the tumors. In vitro, long term exposure of F9-and NMuMG-cells to macrophage-conditioned medium led to decreased expression of the epithelial adhesion protein E-cadherin, activation of the EMT-mediating β-catenin pathway, increased expression of mesenchymal markers and an invasive phenotype. In a candidate based screen, macrophage-derived TGF-β was identified as the main inducer of this EMT-associated phenotype. Lastly, immunohistochemical analysis of NSCLC patient samples identified a positive correlation between intratumoral macrophage densities, EMT markers, intraepithelial TGF-β levels and tumor grade.
Conclusions: Data presented here identify a novel role for macrophages in EMT-promoted tumor progression. The observation that TAMs cluster with intra-epithelial fibroblastoid cells suggests that the role of macrophages in tumor-EMT extends beyond the invasive front. As macrophage infiltration and pronounced EMT tumor phenotype correlate with increased grade in NSCLC patients, we propose that TAMs also promote tumor progression by inducing EMT locally in tumors.