The tactics of cyber war can be used against humanity’s most vicious enemy, cancer – says a Tel Aviv University (TAU) researcher. His research, which was recently published in Trends in Microbiology, found that cancer cells rely on communication and “social networking” to take over the body.
This paves the way for a new approach to treating the disease, one that would utilize the cells’ communication mechanisms to rid the body of cancer.
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Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob of TAU’s School of Physics and Astronomy, along with bacteria researcher Prof. Herbert Levine of Rice University, and cancer researcher Prof. Donald Coffey of Johns Hopkins University, examined the shared traits of cancer cells and bacteria.
They found that like bacteria, cancer cells communicate with each other to become powerful entities within the body. Inspired by the social and survival tactics of bacteria, the team studied cancer as a meta-community of smart, communicating cells that posses special traits of cooperative behavior.
Knowing the enemy
For many years, scientists ignored the complex social interactions of bacteria, which are now the number three killers in hospitals in the Western world. The researchers believe that medical professionals are similarly “underestimating the enemy” when it comes to cancer cells that exhibit similar behaviors.
The parallels that can be drawn between the two cell types are astounding, researchers say. Healthy cells are highly disciplined and respond to chemical and physical cues telling them how to behave. Bacteria and cancer cells can override this control by using different chemical and genetic pathways. They quickly proliferate to make rapid genetic changes to avoid the body’s immune system and develop drug resistance.
Using intricate communication, cancer cells distribute tasks, share resources, differentiate, and make decisions. Before sending cells to colonize organs and tissues throughout the body, called metastasis, “spying cells” explore the body and return to the cancer’s origin. Only then do metastatic cells leave the primary tumor and navigate to new posts.
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Also like bacteria, cancer cells change their own environment. They induce genetic changes that subjugate their surrounding and force normal cells to do the disease’s bidding by providing physical support, protection from the immune system and more. Cancer cells also become dormant when they sense danger, such as chemotherapy chemicals, and can later reactivate at will.
A new therapeutic direction
Professor Ben-Jacob suggests that studying the social behavior of cancer cells can pave the way for new therapeutic approaches. He gives the example of drugs that target cell-to-cell communication or that send misleading messages to cancer cells.
Cancer often relapses undetected until it’s too late to treat. Breaking the communication code for awakening dormant cells could help researchers learn how to reactivate them on purpose. This way they can be ready to kill cells as soon as they awaken.
The team also suggested further research into what they refer to as “cancer cannibalism:” cancer cells consuming their peers when they run out of other resources. Just as is possible with bacteria, signals could be sent to cancer cells that trigger them to kill each other.
Other researchers have demonstrated that injected bacteria can outsmart cancer. Bacteria can be used to induce gap junctions between the cancer cells and immune cells to teach the immune system to recognize and kill tumor cells. “We might be entering a new era of biological cyber-warfare, in which scientists can enlist bacterial intelligence to defeat cancer,” concluded Prof. Ben-Jacob.
Photo by Nephron