Long noncoding RNAs in cancer metastasis

Nat Rev Cancer. 2021 Jul;21(7):446-460. doi: 10.1038/s41568-021-00353-1. Epub 2021 May 5.


Metastasis is a major contributor to cancer-associated deaths. It is characterized by a multistep process that occurs through the acquisition of molecular and phenotypic changes enabling cancer cells from a primary tumour to disseminate and colonize at distant organ sites. Over the past decade, the discovery and characterization of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) have revealed the diversity of their regulatory roles, including key contributions throughout the metastatic cascade. Here, we review how lncRNAs promote metastasis by functioning in discrete pro-metastatic steps including the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, invasion and migration and organotrophic colonization, and by influencing the metastatic tumour microenvironment, often by interacting within ribonucleoprotein complexes or directly with other nucleic acid entities. We discuss well-characterized lncRNAs with in vivo phenotypes and highlight mechanistic commonalities such as convergence with the TGFβ-ZEB1/ZEB2 axis or the nuclear factor-κB pathway, in addition to lncRNAs with controversial mechanisms and the influence of methodologies on mechanistic interpretation. Furthermore, some lncRNAs can help identify tumours with increased metastatic risk and spur novel therapeutic strategies, with several lncRNAs having shown potential as novel targets for antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models. In addition to well-characterized examples of lncRNAs functioning in metastasis, we discuss controversies and ongoing challenges in lncRNA biology. Finally, we present areas for future study for this rapidly evolving field.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Movement
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / genetics*
  • RNA, Long Noncoding / physiology*
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • H19 long non-coding RNA
  • HOTAIR long untranslated RNA, human
  • MALAT1 long non-coding RNA, human
  • RNA, Long Noncoding