In the cellular media environment, some of the most pernicious messaging occurs within tumors, which form a kind of echo chamber that amplifies molecular interactions. These interactions, which support the growth and spread of cancer, occur not only between genetically diverse cancer cells, but also between cancer cells and healthy cells.
That healthy cells should participate in such distorted discourse is disappointing but undeniable, say scientists based at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR). These scientists report that stromal cells are all too receptive to KRAS signals secreted by cancer cells. Under the influence of oncogenic KRAS, stromal cells secrete a message of their own, one that cancer cells cannot produce themselves, and the stromal cells’ messaging ends up reinforcing the cancer cells’ malignant behavior.
These findings appeared April 14 in the journal Cell, in an article entitled, “Oncogenic KRAS Regulates Tumor Cell Signaling via Stromal Reciprocation.” The article describes how the ICR researchers studied communication networks in cells from a type of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, one of the most deadly forms of cancer.
“By combining cell-specific proteome labeling with multivariate phosphoproteomics, we analyzed heterocellular KRASG12D signaling in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) cells,” wrote the authors of the Cell article. “Tumor cell KRASG12D engages heterotypic fibroblasts, which subsequently instigate reciprocal signaling in the tumor cells. Reciprocal signaling employs additional kinases and doubles the number of regulated signaling nodes from cell-autonomous KRASG12D.”
Normal KRAS makes occasional signals that tell a cell to divide. When the gene is mutated, however, it becomes hyperactive and helps drive cancer cells' rapid and uncontrolled growth. KRAS is mutated in more than 90% of pancreatic cancer and in nearly 20% of all cancers.
The authors determined that, “…reciprocal KRASG12D produces a tumor cell phosphoproteome and total proteome that is distinct from cell-autonomous KRASG12D alone. Reciprocal signaling regulates tumor cell proliferation and apoptosis and increases mitochondrial capacity via an IGF1R/AXL-AKT axis.”
In other words, by monitoring reciprocal signaling, the ICR scientists discovered that healthy cells were responding with a totally new message, one propagated via IGF1R/AXL-AKT. This message doubled the capacity for KRAS to drive malignant behavior in cancer cells.
“We now know that tumors are a complex mix of genetically diverse cancer cells and multiple types of healthy cells, all communicating with each other via an intricate web of interactions,” noted Claus Jørgensen, Ph.D., the ICR scientist who led the study and is currently a junior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. “Untangling this web, and decoding individual signals, is vital to identify which of the multitude of communications are most important for controlling tumor growth and spread.
“We have identified a key role played by the most commonly mutated gene in cancer in communicating with healthy cells. Blocking its effects could be an effective cancer treatment.”