Engineering macrophages to eat cancer: from "marker of self" CD47 and phagocytosis to differentiation

J Leukoc Biol. 2017 Jul;102(1):31-40. doi: 10.1189/jlb.4RI1216-516R. Epub 2017 May 18.


The ability of a macrophage to engulf and break down invading cells and other targets provides a first line of immune defense in nearly all tissues. This defining ability to "phagos" or devour can subsequently activate the entire immune system against foreign and diseased cells, and progress is now being made on a decades-old idea of directing macrophages to phagocytose specific targets, such as cancer cells. Engineered T cells provide precedence with recent clinical successes against liquid tumors, but solid tumors remain a challenge, and a handful of clinical trials seek to exploit the abundance of tumor-associated macrophages instead. Although macrophage differentiation into such phenotypes with deficiencies in phagocytic ability can raise challenges, newly recognized features of cancer cells that might be manipulated to increase the phagocytosis of those cells include ≥1 membrane protein, CD47, which broadly inhibits phagocytosis and is abundantly expressed on all healthy cells. Physical properties of the target also influence phagocytosis and again relate-via cytoskeleton forces-to differentiation pathways in solid tumors. Such pathways extend to mechanosensing by the nuclear lamina, which is known to influence signaling by soluble retinoids that can regulate the macrophage SIRPα, the receptor for CD47. Here, we highlight some of those past, present, and rapidly emerging efforts to understand and control macrophages for cancer therapy.

Keywords: cytoskeleton; mechanobiology; solid tumors.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Differentiation / genetics
  • Antigens, Differentiation / immunology
  • Biomarkers, Tumor* / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor* / immunology
  • CD47 Antigen* / genetics
  • CD47 Antigen* / immunology
  • Cytophagocytosis / genetics*
  • Genetic Engineering*
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / immunology*
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Neoplasms* / immunology
  • Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Receptors, Immunologic / genetics
  • Receptors, Immunologic / immunology
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology


  • Antigens, Differentiation
  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CD47 Antigen
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • SIRPA protein, human