Cellular senescence, a process of cell proliferation arrest in response to various stressors, has been considered to be important factor in age-related disease. Identification of senescent cells in tissues is limited and the role of senescent cells is poorly understood. Recently however, several studies showed the characterization of senescent cells in various pathologic conditions and the role of senescent cells in disease progression is becoming important. Senescent cells are growth-arrested cells, however, the senescence associated secretory phenotype (SASP) of senescent cells could modify the tissues’ microenvironment. Here, we discuss the progress and understanding of the role of senescent cells in tissues of pathologic conditions and discuss the development of new therapeutic paradigms, such as senescent cells-targeted therapy.
When cells continue to divide by repeated subculture, progressive telomere erosion occurs, the cells are no longer able to divide, and the proliferation is permanently stopped (1, 2). This phenomenon is called cellular senescence and can be observed not only
The role of senescent cells has been studied in recent years. The purpose of senescence is thought to be the elimination of unwanted cells, such as damaged cells (1, 6, 7). In general, transient induction of senescence in damaged tissues is considered to be a process beneficial to tissue regeneration (15, 16). However, the persistence of senescent cells or failure of their elimination, affects tissues by alteration of their microenvironment (14, 17, 18). This is related with cancer and senescence, which is characterized by accumulation of damaged and stimulated cells. Therefore, senescence is believed to be a crucial barrier against cancer progression (19–21). And recent studies reported that senescent cells may be involved in cancer progression (22–24). These senescent cells are thought to originate from tumor cells, and are called senescent tumor cells (25–28). In this review, we focus specifically on the identification and pathological role of senescent cells in the tumors.
Identification of senescent cells
An important feature of senescent cells is that their growth is arrested, but they remain metabolically active (1). Although cell proliferation is inhibited, the cells actively produce many kinds of proteins. Senescent cells are characterized by secretion of many proteins (43, 44). They express IL-6 and IL-8, which are inflammatory cytokines, as well as chemokines that attract inflammatory cells (41, 42, 44). Expression of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that alter the extracellular matrix is high in senescent cells (28, 45, 46). Secretion of these different proteins can affect the surrounding neighboring cells or cause changes to the tissue microenvironment (14, 17, 18). This phenomenon is called senescence associated secretory phenotype (SASP) (18, 43). The expression pattern of the SASP is known to be different, depending on the origin of the cells. The SASP expression pattern is different between epithelial and mesenchymal cells, so SASP’s influence on each tissue’s microenvironment is thought to be different (18, 43). The differential expression of SASP suggests that senescent cells are actively involved in the pathogenesis of various diseases and disease progression. For example, inflammation has been observed to progress in aged tissues, without evidence of pathogenic infection, suggesting that senescent cells are involved in the inflammatory response through SASP expression (18, 47). The expression pattern of SASP is different according to the stimuli of induction, as well. For example, the SASP expression pattern is different between replicative senescence (RS), stress induced senescence (SIS), and oncogene induced senescence (OIS) (6). It has also been reported that the expression of SASP varies widely, depending on the origin of the cells (18, 43). Therefore, when senescent cells are observed in tissues, the pattern of expression of SASP varies depending on the stimuli and origin of senescent cells, and the microenvironmental effects of senescent cells in these tissues may be different (18, 43, 47).
Cellular senescence the characteristics of a double edged sword; SASP can have a positive or negative effect on disease progression (18, 43, 47). Positive factors include local wound healing, tissue regeneration from damaged cells, and immune reaction inhibition in damaged cells, processes that aid the healing process (48). SASP can also enhance the expression of MMPs in pathologic conditions, such as hepatic or skin fibrosis, preventing fibrosis during the healing process of liver damage or skin wound injuries (49). The SASP cytokines, IL-6 and IL-8, also reinforce senescence growth arrest in some senescent cells (34, 35). Negative effects include an increased inflammatory response, stimulating the growth of nearby malignant cells, and inducing metastasis of malignant cancer cells (23, 24, 28). It has also been observed that the SASP can cause an epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) phenomenon that promotes cancer (46, 50). Therefore, depending on the tissue structure and tissue microenvironment, SASP may be beneficial to the disease progression or may have a negative impact. It is also believed to affect disease progression, depending on the type of SASP expression. Whether the role of SASP in cancer development or cancer progression is positive or negative remains controversial.
The history of senescent cell observation in tumor tissues has not been long. It was thought that senescent tumor cells would not be found in malignant tumors because of the decreased ability of senescent cells to divide (7). Recently, however, with the discovery of various markers of cellular senescence and the rapid processing of fresh tumor tissues, large numbers of senescent cells were reported in a tumor mass (25–28). Then, the question arises regarding the origin of senescent cells in tumors. To investigate this, characterization of senescent cells using various senescence, epithelial and mesenchymal cells markers was performed (28). Senescent cells in the tumors tissues were mainly observed with p16INK4A immunostaining and SA-β-Gal staining in p16INK4A non-deleted and non-mutated tumors (28, 39, 40). SA-β-Gal and p16INK4A staining were observed in the tumor mainly, and were considered to be senescent tumor cells. However, vimentin, a fibroblast marker, did not stain the cells, indicating that the tumor cells had undergone senescence (7, 8, 28).
Senescent tumor cells have been thought to have the ability to inhibit tumorigenesis, since their proliferative capacity is suppressed (19–21). Senescence is induced by activation of various oncogenes, resulting in the expression of p16INK4A and induction of oncogene-induced senescence, and is observed in normal primary cells, including fibroblasts, melanocytes, and thyrocytes. Therefore, senescence has been considered a mechanism to inhibit cancer development (21, 49, 51). In addition, the disappearance of tumor suppressor genes, such as p16INK4A, p53, and p21Waf1 has been shown to induce cancer development
As mentioned above, senescent tumor cells can be observed in primary cancer tissues (25–28), but they are also observed following anti-cancer treatment with chemotherapy or irradiation (18). Induction of senescent cells from cancer cells has been thought to be a reliable therapeutic strategy in tumor therapy (14). Cancer cell death is observed in lethal dose after administration of chemotherapy or radiation, but in cases where sub-lethal doses were given, senescent cells were found (14). Furthermore, the use of retinoic acid for the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia, and the resulting induction of senescent cells in the tumor by the cell dependent kinase 4 (CDK4) and CDK6 inhibitor palbociclib, can improve the patient’s prognosis. This is called therapy induced senescence (14). However, as mentioned above, long term treatment seems to have a side effect with SASP expression. Therefore, the combination of senescence-inducing therapy with interventions that clear senescent cells could be beneficial to short- and long-term outcomes in cancer patients (18).
Little is known yet about the induction action mechanism of senescent tumor cells. Obviously, morphologically, they are malignant tumor cells that progress beyond the pre-cancerous stage. However, why senescent tumor cells are induced has not yet been elucidated. If reactive oxygen species (ROS) or hypoxic stress induces senescence (59), a large amount of senescent tumor cells should be observed in the central region of the tumor. The possibility of senescence induction by ROS seems low, however because senescence is observed in the peripheral region of tumors (28). Furthermore, we do not think it is a precancerous stage. As mentioned earlier, it is morphologically malignant tumor cells and involve cancer cells migration and metastasis which is characteristic of malignant tumor. Therefore, more studies should be performed in this field.
The authors have no conflicting interests.