Theranostics 2020; 10(11):5029-5047. doi:10.7150/thno.42440 This issue

Research Paper

Tumor-neuroglia interaction promotes pancreatic cancer metastasis

Dan Su1,2*, Xiaofeng Guo1,2*, Leyi Huang1,2*, Huilin Ye1,2*, Zhiguo Li1,2, Longfa Lin1,2, Rufu Chen3✉, Quanbo Zhou1,2✉

1. Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Malignant Tumor Epigenetics and Gene Regulation, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China
2. Department of Pancreatobiliary Surgery, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China
3. Department of General Surgery, Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital, Guangdong Academy of Medical Sciences, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China
*These authors contributed equally to this work.

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Su D, Guo X, Huang L, Ye H, Li Z, Lin L, Chen R, Zhou Q. Tumor-neuroglia interaction promotes pancreatic cancer metastasis. Theranostics 2020; 10(11):5029-5047. doi:10.7150/thno.42440. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Rationale: The peripheral nervous system (PNS) plays an important role in tumor growth and progression. Schwann cells (SCs), the main glia cells of the PNS, augment cancer metastasis in contact-dependent or contact-independent manner in various malignancies. In the present study, we aimed to determine whether interplay between pancreatic cancer cells and SCs via paracrine signaling contributes to cancer progression.

Methods: Immunofluorescence analysis was performed to reveal the distribution of SCs in PDAC tissues and to determine the prognostic value and clinicopathological relevance of the level of intra‑tumoral SC markers for patients diagnosed with PDAC. Transwell assays and wound healing assays were carried out to investigate the influence of SC conditioned medium (SCM), SC co‑culture, or co-cultured CM on the migratory and invasive abilities of pancreatic cancer cells. The mechanism of SCs induced cancer cells migration and invasion was confirmed using quantitative real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR), enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs), western blotting, immunofluorescence, immunohistochemistry, siRNA-mediated gene interference, and an in vivo mouse model.

Results: Immunofluorescence analysis of tissue samples revealed that there were two different types of SCs distributed in the tumor microenvironment, the presence of which correlated with several clinicopathological characteristics and overall survival for patients with PDAC. Although SCM had no impact on the motility and invasiveness of tumor cells, both co-cultivation with SCs and co‑cultured CM enhanced pancreatic cancer cell migration and invasion. Mechanistically, SC‑derived Interleukin 6 (IL6), which was induced by co-culture with pancreatic cancer cells, augmented cancer cell migration and invasion by activating STAT3 signaling in cancer cells, while IL6 neutralization or STAT3 downregulation abrogated these effects. Furthermore, Interleukin 1β (IL1β), secreted by tumor cells, activated the nuclear actor (NF)-kappa B pathway in SCs, resulting in increased cytokines production, including IL6, while inhibiting the IL1β-IL1R1 axis led to inactivation of NF-kappa B signaling and downregulated cytokines expression in SCs. Interfering with tumor-neuroglia crosstalk impeded cancer cell dissemination in vivo.

Conclusion: Schwann cells were extensively distributed in the PDAC tumor microenvironment and high level of intra-tumoral SC markers could serve as an independent prognostic factor for poor survival of patients with PDAC. The tumor-neuroglia interaction is indispensable for SCs to acquire a tumor-facilitating phenotype. Targeting the tumor-neuroglia interplay might be a promising strategy to treat PDAC.

Keywords: pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, Schwann cell, epithelial-mesenchymal transition, metastasis, interaction