Hepatic stellate cells suppress NK cell-sustained breast cancer dormancy

Nature. 2021 Jun;594(7864):566-571. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03614-z. Epub 2021 Jun 2.


The persistence of undetectable disseminated tumour cells (DTCs) after primary tumour resection poses a major challenge to effective cancer treatment1-3. These enduring dormant DTCs are seeds of future metastases, and the mechanisms that switch them from dormancy to outgrowth require definition. Because cancer dormancy provides a unique therapeutic window for preventing metastatic disease, a comprehensive understanding of the distribution, composition and dynamics of reservoirs of dormant DTCs is imperative. Here we show that different tissue-specific microenvironments restrain or allow the progression of breast cancer in the liver-a frequent site of metastasis4 that is often associated with a poor prognosis5. Using mouse models, we show that there is a selective increase in natural killer (NK) cells in the dormant milieu. Adjuvant interleukin-15-based immunotherapy ensures an abundant pool of NK cells that sustains dormancy through interferon-γ signalling, thereby preventing hepatic metastases and prolonging survival. Exit from dormancy follows a marked contraction of the NK cell compartment and the concurrent accumulation of activated hepatic stellate cells (aHSCs). Our proteomics studies on liver co-cultures implicate the aHSC-secreted chemokine CXCL12 in the induction of NK cell quiescence through its cognate receptor CXCR4. CXCL12 expression and aHSC abundance are closely correlated in patients with liver metastases. Our data identify the interplay between NK cells and aHSCs as a master switch of cancer dormancy, and suggest that therapies aimed at normalizing the NK cell pool might succeed in preventing metastatic outgrowth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Chemokine CXCL12 / metabolism
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Female
  • Hepatic Stellate Cells / cytology*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology*
  • Liver Neoplasms / secondary
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, SCID
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / pathology
  • Proteomics
  • Transcriptome
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Chemokine CXCL12
  • Cxcl12 protein, mouse
  • Interferon-gamma