PMN-MDSCs enhance CTC metastatic properties through reciprocal interactions via ROS/notch/nodal signaling

Marc L. Sprouse, Thomas Welte, Debasish Boral, Haowen N. Liu, Wei Yin, Monika Vishnoi, Debalina Goswami-Sewell, Lili Li, Guangsheng Pei, Peilin Jia, Isabella C. Glitza-Oliva, Dario Marchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Intratumoral infiltration of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) is known to promote neoplastic growth by inhibiting the tumoricidal activity of T cells. However, direct interactions between patient-derived MDSCs and circulating tumors cells (CTCs) within the microenvironment of blood remain unexplored. Dissecting interplays between CTCs and circulatory MDSCs by heterotypic CTC/MDSC clustering is critical as a key mechanism to promote CTC survival and sustain the metastatic process. We characterized CTCs and polymorphonuclear-MDSCs(PMN-MDSCs) isolated in parallel from peripheral blood of metastatic melanoma and breast cancer patients by multi-parametric flow cytometry. Transplantation of both cell populations in the systemic circulation of mice revealed significantly enhanced dissemination and metastasis in mice co-injected with CTCs and PMN-MDSCs compared to mice injected with CTCs or MDSCs alone. Notably, CTC/PMN-MDSC clusters were detected in vitro and in vivo either in patients’ blood or by longitudinal monitoring of blood from animals. This was coupled with in vitro co-culturing of cell populations, demonstrating that CTCs formed physical clusters with PMN-MDSCs; and induced their pro-tumorigenic differentiation through paracrine Nodal signaling, augmenting the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) by PMN-MDSCs. These findings were validated by detecting significantly higher Nodal and ROS levels in blood of cancer patients in the presence of naïve, heterotypic CTC/PMN-MDSC clusters. Augmented PMN-MDSC ROS upregulated Notch1 receptor expression in CTCs through the ROS-NRF2-ARE axis, thus priming CTCs to respond to ligand-mediated (Jagged1) Notch activation. Jagged1-expressing PMN-MDSCs contributed to enhanced Notch activation in CTCs by engagement of Notch1 receptor. The reciprocity of CTC/PMN-MDSC bi-directional paracrine interactions and signaling was functionally validated in inhibitor-based analyses, demonstrating that combined Nodal and ROS inhibition abrogated CTC/PMN-MDSC interactions and led to a reduction of CTC survival and proliferation. This study provides seminal evidence showing that PMN-MDSCs, additive to their immuno-suppressive roles, directly interact with CTCs and promote their dissemination and metastatic potency. Targeting CTC/PMN-MDSC heterotypic clusters and associated crosstalks can therefore represent a novel therapeutic avenue for limiting hematogenous spread of metastatic disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1916
JournalInternational journal of molecular sciences
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 2 2019


  • Biomarkers and signaling pathways
  • Breast cancer
  • Circulating tumor cells (CTCs)
  • Heterotypic CTC clusters
  • Melanoma
  • Mutual CTC/PMN-MDSc activation cycle
  • Polymorphonuclear-myeloid derived suppressor cells (PMN-MDSCs)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • Molecular Biology
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry


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