Pericytes on the tumor vasculature: jekyll or hyde?

Cancer Microenviron. 2013 Apr;6(1):1-17. doi: 10.1007/s12307-012-0102-2. Epub 2012 Mar 31.


The induction of tumor vasculature, known as the 'angiogenic switch', is a rate-limiting step in tumor progression. Normal blood vessels are composed of two distinct cell types: endothelial cells which form the channel through which blood flows, and mural cells, the pericytes and smooth muscle cells which serve to support and stabilize the endothelium. Most functional studies have focused on the responses of endothelial cells to pro-angiogenic stimuli; however, there is mounting evidence that the supporting mural cells, particularly pericytes, may play key regulatory roles in both promoting vessel growth as well as terminating vessel growth to generate a mature, quiescent vasculature. Tumor vessels are characterized by numerous structural and functional abnormalities, including altered association between endothelial cells and pericytes. These dysfunctional, unstable vessels contribute to hypoxia, interstitial fluid pressure, and enhanced susceptibility to metastatic invasion. Increasing evidence points to the pericyte as a critical regulator of endothelial activation and subsequent vessel development, stability, and function. Here we discuss both the stimulatory and inhibitory effects of pericytes on the vasculature and the possible utilization of vessel normalization as a therapeutic strategy to combat cancer.