Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are shed from solid cancers in the form of single or clustered cells, and the latter display an extraordinary ability to initiate metastasis. Yet, the biological phenomena that trigger the shedding of CTC clusters from a primary cancerous lesion are poorly understood. Here, when dynamically labeling breast cancer cells along cancer progression, we observe that the majority of CTC clusters are undergoing hypoxia, while single CTCs are largely normoxic. Strikingly, we find that vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) targeting leads to primary tumor shrinkage, but it increases intra-tumor hypoxia, resulting in a higher CTC cluster shedding rate and metastasis formation. Conversely, pro-angiogenic treatment increases primary tumor size, yet it dramatically suppresses the formation of CTC clusters and metastasis. Thus, intra-tumor hypoxia leads to the formation of clustered CTCs with high metastatic ability, and a pro-angiogenic therapy suppresses metastasis formation through prevention of CTC cluster generation.
Copyright © 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.