Colorectal cancer development is affected by the ECM molecule EMILIN-2 hinging on macrophage polarization via the TLR-4/MyD88 pathway

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2022 Feb 11;41(1):60. doi: 10.1186/s13046-022-02271-y.


Background: Colorectal cancer is one of the most frequent and deadly tumors. Among the key regulators of CRC growth and progression, the microenvironment has emerged as a crucial player and as a possible route for the development of new therapeutic opportunities. More specifically, the extracellular matrix acts directly on cancer cells and indirectly affecting the behavior of stromal and inflammatory cells, as well as the bioavailability of growth factors. Among the ECM molecules, EMILIN-2 is frequently down-regulated by methylation in CRC and the purpose of this study was to verify the impact of EMILIN-2 loss in CRC development and its possible value as a prognostic biomarker.

Methods: The AOM/DSS CRC protocol was applied to Emilin-2 null and wild type mice. Tumor development was monitored by endoscopy, the molecular analyses performed by IHC, IF and WB and the immune subpopulations characterized by flow cytometry. Ex vivo cultures of monocyte/macrophages from the murine models were used to verify the molecular pathways. Publicly available datasets were exploited to determine the CRC patients' expression profile; Spearman's correlation analyses and Cox regression were applied to evaluate the association with the inflammatory response; the clinical outcome was predicted by Kaplan-Meier survival curves. Pearson correlation analyses were also applied to a cohort of patients enrolled in our Institute.

Results: In preclinical settings, loss of EMILIN-2 associated with an increased number of tumor lesions upon AOM/DSS treatment. In addition, in the early stages of the disease, the Emilin-2 knockout mice displayed a myeloid-derived suppressor cells-rich infiltrate. Instead, in the late stages, lack of EMILIN-2 associated with a decreased number of M1 macrophages, resulting in a higher percentage of the tumor-promoting M2 macrophages. Mechanistically, EMILIN-2 triggered the activation of the Toll-like Receptor 4/MyD88/NF-κB pathway, instrumental for the polarization of macrophages towards the M1 phenotype. Accordingly, dataset and immunofluorescence analyses indicated that low EMILIN-2 expression levels correlated with an increased M2/M1 ratio and with poor CRC patients' prognosis.

Conclusions: These novel results indicate that EMILIN-2 is a key regulator of the tumor-associated inflammatory environment and may represent a promising prognostic biomarker for CRC patients.

Keywords: Colorectal cancer; Extracellular matrix; Tumor microenvironment.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Myeloid Differentiation Factor 88 / metabolism*
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4 / metabolism*
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Myeloid Differentiation Factor 88
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4