Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is a highly desmoplastic, aggressive cancer that frequently progresses and spreads by metastasis to the liver1. Cancer-associated fibroblasts, the extracellular matrix and type I collagen (Col I) support2,3 or restrain the progression of PDAC and may impede blood supply and nutrient availability4. The dichotomous role of the stroma in PDAC, and the mechanisms through which it influences patient survival and enables desmoplastic cancers to escape nutrient limitation, remain poorly understood. Here we show that matrix-metalloprotease-cleaved Col I (cCol I) and intact Col I (iCol I) exert opposing effects on PDAC bioenergetics, macropinocytosis, tumour growth and metastasis. Whereas cCol I activates discoidin domain receptor 1 (DDR1)-NF-κB-p62-NRF2 signalling to promote the growth of PDAC, iCol I triggers the degradation of DDR1 and restrains the growth of PDAC. Patients whose tumours are enriched for iCol I and express low levels of DDR1 and NRF2 have improved median survival compared to those whose tumours have high levels of cCol I, DDR1 and NRF2. Inhibition of the DDR1-stimulated expression of NF-κB or mitochondrial biogenesis blocks tumorigenesis in wild-type mice, but not in mice that express MMP-resistant Col I. The diverse effects of the tumour stroma on the growth and metastasis of PDAC and on the survival of patients are mediated through the Col I-DDR1-NF-κB-NRF2 mitochondrial biogenesis pathway, and targeting components of this pathway could provide therapeutic opportunities.
© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.