Pancreatic fibroblast exosomes regulate survival of cancer cells

Cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) comprise the majority of the tumor bulk of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDACs). Current efforts to eradicate these tumors focus predominantly on targeting the proliferation of rapidly growing cancer epithelial cells. We know that this is largely ineffective with resistance arising in most tumors following exposure to chemotherapy. Despite the long-standing recognition of the prominence of CAFs in PDAC, the effect of chemotherapy on CAFs and how they may contribute to drug resistance in neighboring cancer cells is not well characterized.

Here, researchers from the University of Notre Dame show that CAFs exposed to chemotherapy have an active role in regulating the survival and proliferation of cancer cells. They found that CAFs are intrinsically resistant to gemcitabine, the chemotherapeutic standard of care for PDAC. Further, CAFs exposed to gemcitabine significantly increase the release of extracellular vesicles called exosomes. These exosomes increased chemoresistance-inducing factor, Snail, in recipient epithelial cells and promote proliferation and drug resistance. Finally, treatment of gemcitabine-exposed CAFs with an inhibitor of exosome release, GW4869, significantly reduces survival in co-cultured epithelial cells, signifying an important role of CAF exosomes in chemotherapeutic drug resistance. Collectively, these findings show the potential for exosome inhibitors as treatment options alongside chemotherapy for overcoming PDAC chemoresistance.

Schematic overview of CAF exosome signaling during GEM treatment


GEM treatment leads to upregulation of Snail and miR-146a, as well as exosome secretion in CAFs that could lead to increased cell proliferation, tumor growth and chemoresistance of adjacent cancer epithelial cells. GW4869 suppresses exosome release and therefore exosomal transfer of Snail and miR-146a.

Richards KE, Zeleniak AE, Fishel ML, Wu J, Littlepage LE, Hill R. (2016) Cancer-associated fibroblast exosomes regulate survival and proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells. Oncogene [Epub ahead of print]. [abstract]

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