Tunneling nanotubes: A new paradigm for studying intercellular communication and therapeutics in cancer

Emil Lou, Sho Fujisawa, Afsar Barlas, Yevgeniy Romin, Katia Manova-Todorova, Malcolm A.S. Moore, Subbaya Subramanian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Tunneling nanotubes are actin-based cytoplasmic extensions that function as intercellular channels in a wide variety of cell types.There is a renewed and keen interest in the examination of modes of intercellular communication in cells of all types, especially in the field of cancer biology. Tunneling nanotubes- which in the literature have also been referred to as "membrane nanotubes," "'intercellular' or 'epithelial' bridges," or "cytoplasmic extensions"-are under active investigation for their role in facilitating direct intercellular communication. These structures have not, until recently, been scrutinized as a unique and previously unrecognized form of direct cell-to-cell transmission of cellular cargo in the context of human cancer. Our recent study of tunneling nanotubes in human malignant pleural mesothelioma and lung adenocarcinomas demonstrated efficient transfer of cellular contents, including proteins, Golgi vesicles, and mitochondria, between cells derived from several well-established cancer cell lines. Further, we provided effective demonstration that such nanotubes can form between primary malignant cells from human patients. For the first time, we also demonstrated the in vivo relevance of these structures in humans, having effectively imaged nanotubes in intact solid tumors from patients. Here we provide further analysis and discussion on our findings, and offer a prospective "road map" for studying tunneling nanotubes in the context of human cancer. We hope that further understanding of the mechanisms, methods of transfer, and particularly the role of nanotubes in tumor-stromal cross-talk will lead to identification of new selective targets for cancer therapeutics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)399-403
Number of pages5
JournalCommunicative and Integrative Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research has been funded by the Baker Street Foundation, the Minnesota Medical Foundation, and the Karen Wyckoff Rein in Sarcoma Foundation.


  • Cancer
  • Intercellular bridges
  • Intercellular communication
  • Intercellular transfer
  • Membrane nanotubes
  • Therapeutics
  • Tunneling nanotubes


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