Cannibalism of live lymphocytes by human metastatic but not primary melanoma cells

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Cancer Res. 2006 Apr 1;66(7):3629-38.

Cannibalism of live lymphocytes by human metastatic but not primary melanoma cells.


Department of Drug Research and Evaluation, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Viale Regina Elena 299, 00161 Rome, Italy.


The phenomenon of cell cannibalism, which generally refers to the engulfment of cells within other cells, was described in malignant tumors, but its biological significance is still largely unknown. In the present study, we investigated the occurrence, the in vivo relevance, and the underlying mechanisms of cannibalism in human melanoma. As first evidence, we observed that tumor cannibalism was clearly detectable in vivo in metastatic lesions of melanoma and often involved T cells, which could be found in a degraded state within tumor cells. Then, in vitro experiments confirmed that cannibalism of T cells was a property of metastatic melanoma cells but not of primary melanoma cells. In particular, morphologic analyses, including time-lapse cinematography and electron microscopy, revealed a sequence of events, in which metastatic melanoma cells were able to engulf and digest live autologous melanoma-specific CD8(+) T cells. Importantly, this cannibalistic activity significantly increased metastatic melanoma cell survival, particularly under starvation condition, supporting the evidence that tumor cells may use the eating of live lymphocytes as a way to "feed" in condition of low nutrient supply. The mechanism underlying cannibalism involved a complex framework, including lysosomal protease cathepsin B activity, caveolae formation, and ezrin cytoskeleton integrity and function. In conclusion, our study shows that human metastatic melanoma cells may eat live T cells, which are instead programmed to kill them, suggesting a novel mechanism of tumor immune escape. Moreover, our data suggest that cannibalism may represent a sort of "feeding" activity aimed at sustaining survival and progression of malignant tumor cells in an unfavorable microenvironment.