Metastatic spread of tumor cells to vital organs is the major cause of death in cancer. Accumulating data support an important role of infiltrating immune cells in promoting carcinoma progression into metastatic disease. Tumor-infiltrating immune cells produce and secrete cytokines, growth factors and proteases that re-activate latent developmental processes including epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). EMT provides tumor cells with invasive, migratory and stem cell properties allowing them to disseminate and propagate at distant sites. Induction of EMT requires two criteria to be fulfilled: (i) cells are competent to undergo EMT (ii) an EMT-permissive microenvironment exists. The cytokine TGF-β, which is expressed by tumor-infiltrating immune cells, stands out as a master regulator of the pro-invasive tumor microenvironment. TGF-β cooperates with stem cell pathways, such as Wnt and Ras signaling, to induce EMT. In addition, TGF-β contributes to an EMT-permissive microenvironment by switching the phenotypes of tumor-infiltrating immune cells, which thereby mount pro-invasive and pro-metastatic immune responses. In this review, we discuss the role of TGF-β-induced EMT as a link between cancer and inflammation in the context of questions, which from our point of view are key to answer in order to understand the functionality of EMT in tumors.
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.