The tumor microenvironment plays a key role in tumor development and progression. Stromal cells secrete growth factors, cytokines and extracellular matrix proteins which promote growth, survival and metastatic spread of cancer cells. Fibroblasts are the predominant constituent of the tumor stroma and Hepatocyte Growth Factor (HGF), the specific ligand for the tyrosine kinase receptor c-MET, is a major component of their secretome. Indeed, cancer-associated fibroblasts have been shown to promote growth, survival and migration of cancer cells in an HGF-dependent manner. Fibroblasts also confer resistance to anti-cancer therapy through HGF-induced epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) and activation of pro-survival signaling pathways such as ERK and AKT in tumor cells. Constitutive HGF/MET signaling in cancer cells is associated with increased tumor aggressiveness and predicts poor outcome in cancer patients. Due to its role in tumor progression and therapeutic resistance, both HGF and MET have emerged as valid therapeutic targets. Several inhibitors of MET and HGF are currently being tested in clinical trials. Preclinical data provide a strong indication that inhibitors of HGF/MET signaling overcome both primary and acquired resistance to EGFR, HER2, and BRAF targeting agents. These findings support the notion that co-targeting of cancer cells and stromal cells is required to prevent therapeutic resistance and to increase the overall survival rate of cancer patients. HGF dependence has emerged as a hallmark of therapeutic resistance, suggesting that inhibitors of biological activity of HGF should be included into therapeutic regimens of cancer patients.
Keywords: HGF; fibroblasts; tumor microenvironment.