What is the tumor microenvironment, and why is it important?
Your tumor microenvironment is the non-cancerous cells, molecules, and blood vessels that surround and feed a tumor cell. A tumor can change its microenvironment, and the microenvironment can affect how a tumor grows and spreads.1National Cancer Institute. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Viewed April 30, 2018.
How does my tumor affect the microenvironment?
If cancer was simply a group of malignant cells or a disease of aberrant genes, we would have long ago succeeded in eliminating or curing cancer by removing or destroying cells or targeting genetic mutations. But it’s not. Cancers are “not just masses of malignant cells, but complex ‘rogue’ organs, to which many other cells are recruited and can be corrupted by the transformed cells.”2Balkwill FR, Capasso M, Hagemann T. The tumor microenvironment at a glance. Journal of Cell Science. 2012 Dec 1;125(Pt 23):5591-6.
Cancer cells and tumors actively participate in their microenvironments, similar to how a roommate would be an active participant in your home. Roommates bring in possessions and dirt, use water and electricity, and create waste. Some may be rude or even destructive, intruding on your space, making messes, eating your food, rearranging the furniture without asking you, making noise, causing damage—they change their environment. Cancer cells do the same thing on a cellular level, and usually to their advantage. “Tumor cells themselves alter the microenvironment to secrete things that help tumors grow.”3Joe Gray, PhD, quoted in Gibbs A. Area surrounding a tumor impacts how breast cancer cells grow. Oregon Health & Science University. March 14, 2018. Viewed April 30, 2018.
In addition to malignant cells, the tumor microenvironment contains these types of cells and structures:
- Immune cells
- Tumor blood vessels
- Lymph cells, nodes, and channels
- Fibroblasts, cells in connective tissue that produce collagen and other fibers, usually to help wounds heal
- Pericytes, cells in linings of blood vessels that help with blood vessel formation
- Adipocytes, fat storage cells
All the malignant and nonmalignant cells in the tumor microenvironment communicate with each other through a network of biochemicals—cytokines, chemokines and growth factors, as well as enzymes that promote inflammation and remodel your tissue structure.
All the cells in the tumor microenvironment play a role in cancer’s development, spread, and response to treatment. Altering the environment around tumor cells can impact their ability to grow and spread.
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