Background & aims: In several types of cancers, tumor cells invade adjacent tissues by migrating along the resident nerves of the tumor microenvironment. This process, called perineural invasion, typically occurs along extrinsic nerves, with Schwann cells providing physical guidance for the tumor cells. However, in the colorectal cancer microenvironment, the most abundant nervous structures belong to the nonmyelinated intrinsic enteric nervous system (ENS). In this study, we investigated whether colon cancer cells interact with the ENS.
Methods: Tumor epithelial cells (TECs) from human primary colon adenocarcinomas and cell lines were cocultured with primary cultures of ENS and cultures of human ENS plexus explants. By combining confocal and atomic force microscopy, as well as video microscopy, we assessed tumor cell adhesion and migration on the ENS. We identified the adhesion proteins involved using a proteomics approach based on biotin/streptavidin interaction, and their implication was confirmed further using selective blocking antibodies.
Results: TEC adhered preferentially and with stronger adhesion forces to enteric nervous structures than to mesenchymal cells. TEC adhesion to ENS involved direct interactions with enteric neurons. Enteric neuron removal from ENS cultures led to a significant decrease in tumor cell adhesion. TECs migrated significantly longer and further when adherent on ENS compared with on mesenchymal cells, and their trajectory faithfully followed ENS structures. Blocking N-cadherin and L1CAM decreased TEC migration along ENS structures.
Conclusions: Our data show that the enteric neuronal network guides tumor cell migration, partly via L1CAM and N-cadherin. These results open a new avenue of research on the underlying mechanisms and consequences of perineural invasion in colorectal cancer.
Keywords: AFM, atomic force microscope; Adhesion; Colorectal Cancer; DMEM, Dulbecco's modified Eagle medium; ENS, enteric nervous system; Enteric Neurons; GFP, green fluorescent protein; MCS, multiple cloning site; Migration; PBS, phosphate-buffered saline; TEC, tumor epithelial cell; Tuj, tubulin III; pcENS, primary culture enteric nervous system; α-SMA, α–smooth muscle actin.