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We have shown that activin A (activin), a TGF-β superfamily member, has pro-metastatic effects in colorectal cancer (CRC). In lung cancer, activin activates pro-metastatic pathways to enhance tumor cell survival and migration while augmenting CD4+ to CD8+ communications to promote cytotoxicity. Here, we hypothesized that activin exerts cell-specific effects in the tumor microenvironment (TME) of CRC to promote anti-tumoral activity of immune cells and the pro-metastatic behavior of tumor cells in a cell-specific and context-dependent manner. We generated an Smad4 epithelial cell specific knockout (Smad4-/-) which was crossed with TS4-Cre mice to identify SMAD-specific changes in CRC. We also performed IHC and digital spatial profiling (DSP) of tissue microarrays (TMAs) obtained from 1055 stage II and III CRC patients in the QUASAR 2 clinical trial. We transfected the CRC cells to reduce their activin production and injected them into mice with intermittent tumor measurements to determine how cancer-derived activin alters tumor growth in vivo. In vivo, Smad4-/- mice displayed elevated colonic activin and pAKT expression and increased mortality. IHC analysis of the TMA samples revealed increased activin was required for TGF-β-associated improved outcomes in CRC. DSP analysis identified that activin co-localization in the stroma was coupled with increases in T-cell exhaustion markers, activation markers of antigen presenting cells (APCs), and effectors of the PI3K/AKT pathway. Activin-stimulated PI3K-dependent CRC transwell migration, and the in vivo loss of activin lead to smaller CRC tumors. Taken together, activin is a targetable, highly context-dependent molecule with effects on CRC growth, migration, and TME immune plasticity.

Original publication




Journal article


Cancers (Basel)

Publication Date





activin A, colorectal cancer, digital spatial profiling, metastasis, tumor microenvironment