University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Angiogenesis Inhibitors Undermined by Immune Cells, Says Study

Research Suggests Strategy to Prevent Relapse After Therapies Targeting Tumor Blood Vessels

By Pete Farley | | April 16, 2015

Angiogenesis Inhibitors Undermined by Immune Cells, Says Study

Gabriele Bergers, PhD

Angiogenesis inhibitors—a widely used class of cancer drugs designed to shrink tumors by preventing them from forming new blood vessels—often work in the short term, but usually become ineffective within months. Now, a team led by UC San Francisco scientists has discovered a possible reason, one that could lead to a way to address the problem and prevent cancer relapse.

Working with laboratory models of pancreatic and breast cancer, the scientists found that myeloid cells, which originate in bone marrow and are part of the body’s first-line of defense—the so-called “innate” immune system—at first work in concert with the therapy but then switch roles and undermine it.

As reported in the April 16, 2015 online issue of Cell Reports, the researchers, under the direction of senior investigator Gabriele Bergers, PhD, UCSF professor of neurological surgery, and first author Lee B. Rivera, PhD, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar in the Bergers laboratory, also identified a potential way to stop myeloid cells from sabotaging the therapy and prevent relapse. The key to the discovery, said Bergers, lies in the dual nature of myeloid cells, which exist in two basic states.

In one state, myeloid cells are immunity-enhancing and angiostatic – that is, they prevent the formation of new blood vessels. “This is important in the early stages of wound healing,” she explained, “when they need to be immune-stimulatory and attack when bacteria, for example, are invading.” But during the later stages of healing, “they need to switch to their other state, in which they are angiogenic”—generating new blood vessels—“and immune-suppressive, because new blood vessels need to form as part of tissue repair, and you don’t want cells around that are in attack mode.”

During anti-angiogenic therapy, said Bergers, the Neill H. and Linda S. Brownstein Endowed Chair in Brain Tumor Research and a member of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, “the tumor hijacks the second stage of the natural process we see in wound healing for its own advantage. But we have learned that we can also manipulate this process to make therapy more effective.”

Angiogenesis inhibitors approved for clinical use, which include bevacizumab (Avastin), sunitinib (Sutent), and everolimus (Afinitor), work by blocking the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) signaling pathway, which prevents the tumor from forming new blood vessels, thereby shrinking it.

The researchers found that during the initial phase of therapy, VEGF inhibition stimulates myeloid cells within the tumor to release the signaling protein CXCL14, which is angiostatic and stimulates immunity. During this phase, myeloid cells complement the therapy to prevent the creation of new blood vessels, and the tumor shrinks.

But then—probably in response to reduced oxygen flow within the tumor—myeloid cells switch to their opposite state “and become real bad guys,” said Bergers. At this stage the cells activate the PI3-kinase (PI3K) signaling pathway, which neutralizes CXCL14 and promotes angiogenesis and tumor growth.

“Once the PI3K pathway is activated, therapy becomes ineffective, and you have relapse,” she said. 

In breast cancer, Bergers noted, anti-VEGF therapy is not very effective to begin with. “This tells us why,” she said. “In a laboratory model of breast cancer, about 45 percent of myeloid cells are already activated, so the cancer just ignores the therapy.”