Macrophages are the first line of defense against infections, playing important roles in consuming pathogens and in regulating inflammation. In general, these functions help maintain a healthy organism, keeping infections at bay and promoting healing. However, it is now well known that inflammation is associated with cancer progression, and that the presence of macrophages within a tumor often correlates with poor prognosis1. But, the relationship between inflammation and cancer progression is poorly understood, and much is still unknown about how macrophages may contribute to tumor growth or metastasis.
Using in vivo animal models of melanoma invasion, a new study has uncovered a surprising way that macrophages may be affecting cancer cells. Using zebrafish and mouse models, high-resolution imaging, and an elegant Cre/Lox fluorescent reporter strategy, Roh-Johnson et al. discovered that macrophages actually exchange cytoplasm with melanoma cells in live animals2. They observed that the presence of macrophage cytoplasm in cancer cells correlates with melanoma invasion, suggesting that cytoplasmic factors within macrophages may activate the metastatic phenotype in cancer cells.
A prior study used a similar LoxP-STOP-LoxP strategy to show that metastatic tumors can secrete vesicles which transfer cancer cell cytoplasm and migratory phenotypes into other cells in the environment3. However, macrophages have not previously been observed to transfer cytoplasm to other cells. Models for how macrophages influence cancer metastasis have generally been focused on extracellular signaling and the regulation of the tumor microenvironment. This new study fundamentally alters not only our understanding of cancer metastasis, but also our understanding of macrophage behavior. It also highlights the surprising variety of ways that cells can interact and communicate with one another.
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