Metastasis is the process of primary tumor cells breaking away and colonizing distant secondary sites. In order for a tumor cell growing in one microenvironment to travel to, and flourish in, a secondary environment, it must survive a series of events termed the metastatic cascade. Before departing the primary tumor, cells acquire genetic and epigenetic changes that endow them with properties not usually associated with related normal differentiated cells. Those cells also induce a subset of bone marrow-derived stem cells to mobilize and establish pre-metastatic niches . Many tumor cells undergo epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), where they transiently acquire morphologic changes, reduced requirements for cell-cell contact and become more invasive . Invasive tumor cells eventually enter the circulatory (hematogenous) or lymphatic systems or travel across body cavities. In transit, tumor cells must resist anoikis, survive sheer forces and evade detection by the immune system. For blood-borne metastases, surviving cells then arrest or adhere to endothelial linings before either proliferating or extravasating. Eventually, tumor cells complete the process by proliferating to form a macroscopic mass .
Up to 90 % of all cancer related morbidity and mortality can be attributed to metastasis. Surgery manages to ablate most primary tumors, especially when combined with chemotherapy and radiation. But if cells have disseminated, survival rates drop precipitously. While multiple parameters of the primary tumor are predictive of local or distant relapse, biopsies remain an imperfect science. The introduction of molecular and other biomarkers [4, 5] continue to improve the accuracy of prognosis. However, the invasive procedure introduces new complications for the patient. Likewise, the heterogeneity of any tumor population [3, 6, 7] means that sampling error (i.e., since it is impractical to examine the entire tumor) necessitates further improvements.
In the case of breast cancer, for example, women diagnosed with stage I diseases (i.e., no evidence of invasion through a basement membrane) still have a ~30 % likelihood of developing distant metastases . Many physicians and patients opt for additional chemotherapy in order to “mop up“ cells that have disseminated and have the potential to grow into macroscopic metastases. This means that ~ 70 % of patients receive unnecessary therapy, which has undesirable side effects. Therefore, improving prognostic capability is highly desirable.
Recent advances allow profiling of primary tumor DNA sequences and gene expression patterns to define a so-called metastatic signature [9–11], which can be predictive of patient outcome. However, the genetic changes that a tumor cell must undergo to survive the initial events of the metastatic cascade and colonize a second location belie a plasticity that may not be adequately captured in a sampling of heterogeneous tumors. In order to tailor or personalize patient treatments, a more accurate assessment of the genetic profile in the metastases is needed. Biopsy of each individual metastasis is not practical, safe, nor particularly cost-effective. In recent years, there has been a resurrection of the notion to do a ‘liquid biopsy,’ which essentially involves sampling of circulating tumor cells (CTC) and/or cell free nucleic acids (cfDNA, including microRNA (miRNA)) present in blood and lymph [12–16].
The rationale for liquid biopsy is that tumors shed cells and/or genetic fragments into the circulation, theoretically making the blood representative of not only the primary tumor but also distant metastases. Logically, one would predict that the proportion of CTC and/or cfDNA would be proportionate to the likelihood of developing metastases . While a linear relationship does not exist, the information within CTC or cfDNA is beginning to show great promise for enabling a global snapshot of the disease. However, the CTC and cfDNA are present at extremely low levels. Nonetheless, newer technologies capture enough material to enrich and sequence the patient’s DNA or quantification of some biomarkers.
Among the biomarkers showing great promise are metastasis suppressors which, by definition, block a tumor cell’s ability to complete the metastatic process without prohibiting primary tumor growth . Since the discovery of the first metastasis suppressor, Nm23, more than 30 have been functionally characterized. They function at various stages of the metastatic cascade, but their mechanisms of action, for the most part, remain ill-defined. Deciphering the molecular interactions of functional metastasis suppressors may provide insights for targeted therapies when these regulators cease to function and result in metastatic disease.
In this brief review, we summarize what is known about the various metastasis suppressors and their functions at individual steps of the metastatic cascade (Table 1). Some of the subdivisions are rather arbitrary in nature, since many metastasis suppressors affect more than one step in the metastatic cascade. Nonetheless what emerges is a realization that metastasis suppressors are intimately associated with the microenvironments in which cancer cells find themselves .