Neuropilins comprise two homologous widely-expressed single-pass plasma membrane receptors (Nrp1 and Nrp2), originally identified for binding secreted Semaphorins and Vascular Endothelial Growth Factors (in association with Plexins and VEGF-Receptors). Semaphorins have been implicated with opposite functions in cancer: either as putative tumor suppressors and anti-angiogenic factors, or mediating tumour angiogenesis, invasion and metastasis. Moreover, due to their implication in VEGF signaling, neuropilins regulate vascular development and tumor angiogenesis.
Recent evidence further suggests a role of neuropilins in cancer progression due to their interaction with receptor tyrosine kinases, adhesion molecules, and integrins. Furthermore, neuropilins have been implicated in response to additional growth factors, such as Hepatocyte Growth Factor, Fibroblast Growth Factor, Transforming Growth Factor beta, Galectin, etc. Altogether, these data seem to qualify neuropilins as signaling platforms on the cell surface, potentially capable of regulating cancer cells, as well as cells of the tumor microenvironment.
Intriguingly, clinical-pathological data often indicate a correlation between increased expression of neuropilins and advanced stage tumors with poor prognosis. In this article, we will review the current experimental evidence about the functional role of neuropilins in cancer and the underlying molecular mechanisms.