Long recognized as an evolutionarily ancient cell type involved in tissue homeostasis and immune defense against pathogens, macrophages are being re-discovered as regulators of several diseases, including cancer. Tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) represent the most abundant innate immune population in the tumor microenvironment (TME). Macrophages are professional phagocytic cells of the hematopoietic system specializing in the detection, phagocytosis and destruction of bacteria and other harmful micro-organisms, apoptotic cells and metabolic byproducts. In contrast to these healthy macrophage functions, TAMs support cancer cell growth and metastasis and mediate immunosuppressive effects on the adaptive immune cells of the TME. Cancer is one of the most potent insults on macrophage physiology, inducing changes that are intimately linked with disease progression. In this Review, we outline hallmarks of TAMs and discuss the emerging mechanisms that contribute to their pathophysiological adaptations and the vulnerabilities that provide attractive targets for therapeutic exploitation in cancer.
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