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Apoptosis in the Pancreatic Cancer Tumor Microenvironment-The Double-Edged Sword of Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Article number1653
Issue number7
Published1 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright: © 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. Copyright: Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

King's Authors


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is associated with poor prognosis. This is attributed to the disease already being advanced at presentation and having a particularly aggressive tumor biology. The PDAC tumor microenvironment (TME) is characterized by a dense desmoplastic stroma, dominated by cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAF), extracellular matrix (ECM) and immune cells displaying immunosuppressive phenotypes. Due to the advanced stage at diagnosis, the depletion of immune effector cells and lack of actionable genomic targets, the standard treatment is still apoptosis-inducing regimens such as chemotherapy. Paradoxically, it has emerged that the direct induction of apoptosis of cancer cells may fuel oncogenic processes in the TME, including education of CAF and immune cells towards pro-tumorigenic phenotypes. The direct effect of cytotoxic therapies on CAF may also enhance tumorigenesis. With the awareness that CAF are the predominant cell type in PDAC driving tumorigenesis with various tumor supportive functions, efforts have been made to try to target them. However, efforts to target CAF have, to date, shown disappointing results in clinical trials. With the help of sophisticated single cell analyses it is now appreciated that CAF in PDAC are a heterogenous population with both tumor supportive and tumor suppressive functions. Hence, there remains a debate whether targeting CAF in PDAC is a valid therapeutic strategy. In this review we discuss how cytotoxic therapies and the induction of apoptosis in PDAC fuels oncogenesis by the education of surrounding stromal cells, with a particular focus on the potential pro-tumorigenic outcomes arising from targeting CAF. In addition, we explore therapeutic avenues to potentially avoid the oncogenic effects of apoptosis in PDAC CAF.

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