Cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs), the most abundant cells in the tumor microenvironment (TME), are a key source of the extracellular matrix (ECM) that constitutes the desmoplastic stroma. Through remodeling of the reactive tumor stroma and paracrine actions, CAFs regulate cancer initiation, progression, and metastasis, as well as tumor resistance to therapies. The CAFs found in stroma-rich primary hepatocellular carcinomas (HCC) and liver metastases of primary cancers of other organs predominantly originate from hepatic stellate cells (HSTC), which are pericytes associated with hepatic sinusoids. During tumor invasion, HSTCs transdifferentiate into myofibroblasts in response to paracrine signals emanating from either tumor cells or a heterogeneous cell population within the hepatic tumor microenvironment. Mechanistically, HSTC-tomyofibroblast transdifferentiation, also known as, HSTC activation, requires cell surface receptor activation, intracellular signal transduction, gene transcription, and epigenetic signals, which combined ultimately modulate distinct gene expression profiles that give rise to and maintain a new phenotype. The current review defines a paradigmthat explains how HSTCs are activated into CAFs to promote liver metastasis. Furthermore, a focus on the most relevant intracellular signaling networks and epigenetic mechanisms that control HSTC activation is provided. Finally, we discuss the feasibility of targeting CAF/activated HSTCs, in isolation or in conjunction with targeting cancer cells, which constitutes a promising and viable therapeutic approach for the treatment of primary stroma-rich liver cancers and liver metastasis.
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© 2014 American Association for Cancer Research.