Cruel to Be Kind: Epithelial, Microbial, and Immune Cell Interactions in Gastrointestinal Cancers

Annu Rev Immunol. 2020 Apr 26;38:649-671. doi: 10.1146/annurev-immunol-082019-081656. Epub 2020 Feb 10.


A plethora of experimental and epidemiological evidence supports a critical role for inflammation and adaptive immunity in the onset of cancer and in shaping its response to therapy. These data are particularly robust for gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, such as those affecting the GI tract, liver, and pancreas, on which this review is focused. We propose a unifying hypothesis according to which intestinal barrier disruption is the origin of tumor-promoting inflammation that acts in conjunction with tissue-specific cancer-initiating mutations. The gut microbiota and its products impact tissue-resident and recruited myeloid cells that promote tumorigenesis through secretion of growth- and survival-promoting cytokines that act on epithelial cells, as well as fibrogenic and immunosuppressive cytokines that interfere with the proper function of adaptive antitumor immunity. Understanding these relationships should improve our ability to prevent cancer development and stimulate the immune system to eliminate existing malignancies.

Keywords: gut-liver axis; immunity; immunotherapy; inflammation; microbiome.

Publication types

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