HIF expression and the role of hypoxic microenvironments within primary tumours as protective sites driving cancer stem cell renewal and metastatic progression
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Hypoxic microenvironments frequently exist in many solid tumours with oxygen levels fluctuating temporally and spatially from normoxia to hypoxia. The response to hypoxia in human cells is mainly regulated by hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs), a family of transcription factors which orchestrate signalling events leading to angiogenesis and tumorigenesis. Several events conspire together to lead to the stabilization of HIF-a, commonly expressed in many cancer cell types. These events can result from low oxygen tensions occurring within the expanding tumour mass to produce hypoxic microenvironments or from mutations whereby the HIFs cause changes in expression of genes involved in several cellular functions. Hypoxia-mediated HIF-a regulation has gained significant prominence in tumour biology over recent years, and the hypoxic microenvironments have been shown to facilitate and trigger major molecular and immunological processes necessary to drive the progression of tumours to malignancy. More recently, it has been realized that the hypoxic microenvironments also play significant roles in shielding tumour cells from immune attack by promoting immune suppression. In addition, the hypoxic microenvironment promotes many other oncogenic events, such as the metabolic reconfiguration of tumour cells, neovascularization, epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), and cancer stem cell renewal and accumulation. This article reviews the molecular mechanisms underlying tumour hypoxia and their pro-tumour contributions, such as immune suppression, development of nascent and more permeable tumour vasculature, selective cancer stem cell renewal, accumulation, mobilization and promotion of EMT leading to tumour cell metastasis.
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