Macrophages and microglia: the cerberus of glioblastoma

Acta Neuropathol Commun. 2021 Mar 25;9(1):54. doi: 10.1186/s40478-021-01156-z.


Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most aggressive and deadliest of the primary brain tumors, characterized by malignant growth, invasion into the brain parenchyma, and resistance to therapy. GBM is a heterogeneous disease characterized by high degrees of both inter- and intra-tumor heterogeneity. Another layer of complexity arises from the unique brain microenvironment in which GBM develops and grows. The GBM microenvironment consists of neoplastic and non-neoplastic cells. The most abundant non-neoplastic cells are those of the innate immune system, called tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs). TAMs constitute up to 40% of the tumor mass and consist of both brain-resident microglia and bone marrow-derived myeloid cells from the periphery. Although genetically stable, TAMs can change their expression profiles based upon the signals that they receive from tumor cells; therefore, heterogeneity in GBM creates heterogeneity in TAMs. By interacting with tumor cells and with the other non-neoplastic cells in the tumor microenvironment, TAMs promote tumor progression. Here, we review the origin, heterogeneity, and functional roles of TAMs. In addition, we discuss the prospects of therapeutically targeting TAMs alone or in combination with standard or newly-emerging GBM targeting therapies.

Keywords: Glioblastoma; Heterogeneity; Macrophages; Microenvironment; Microglia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Brain Neoplasms / pathology
  • Glioblastoma / immunology*
  • Glioblastoma / pathology
  • Humans
  • Microglia / immunology*
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology*
  • Tumor-Associated Macrophages / immunology*