A fascinating new study reveals that cancer, like an enemy hacker in cyberspace, targets the body’s communication network inflicting damage on the entire system. The researchers discovered just like cyberwarfare, cancer possesses special traits for cooperative behavior and uses intricate communication to distribute tasks, share resources, make decisions and attack.
“What we are dealing with is cyberwarfare, pure and simple. Cancer uses the immune systems’ own communications network to attack not the soldiers but the generals that are coordinating the body’s defense,” says Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy. This major breakthrough and new understanding of cancer as conducting ‘cyberwarfare’ against the immune system, provides insight to new ways of out-smarting and treating a very sophisticated enemy.
How cancer collapses the body’s communications system
In order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the body’s communication networks, Ben-Jacob and colleagues at Rice University and the University of Texas developed a computer program that modeled a specific channel of cell-to-cell communication, observing the exchange between cancer cells, dendritic cells and the other cells that make up the immune system.
The innate and adaptive immune systems use different strategies to protect the body from disease, and the relationship they share holds promise for a cure. On the one hand, the innate system, the body’s first line of defense, guards against any and all threats to the immune system and provides immediate protection against infection. The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is highly specialized and prepares the body’s immune system for future challenges. Dendritic cells, part of both the innate and adaptive systems, share important information to help the adaptive immune system’s cells distinguish between the body’s own cells and unwanted invaders, like cancer cells.
In recent research it was shown that dendritic cells use what is called exosomal communications (cell-to-cell ‘chatter’) to carry out their specialized role as messengers between the innate and adaptive immune systems. Ben-Jacob explains, “Basically, exosomes are small cassettes of information that are packed and sealed inside small [parts of cells], called nanoscale vesicles. These nanocarriers are addressed with special markers so they can be delivered to specific types of cells, and they contain a good deal of specific information in the form of signaling proteins, snippets of RNA, microRNAs and other data. Once taken by the target cells, these nanocarriers can order cells to change what they are doing and in some cases even change their identity.” To put his words in cyber context, exosomes are the cyber criminal, invading the immune system and allowing cancerous invaders to take over.
In the war between cancer and the immune system, lies a cure
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Researchers explain that there is essentially a tug-of-war between the cancer and the immune system and thus far they have found that the presence of exosomes creates a situation where three possible cancer states can exist. “When exosomes are not included, there are only two possible states — one where cancer is strong and the immune system is weak and the other where cancer is weak and the immune system is strong,” explains Ben-Jacob. In the third state, an intermediate state, the cancer is neither strong nor weak, but the immune system is on high alert. Researchers say that this could very well be the key for a new therapeutic approach with reduced side effects.
“The challenge is to be familiar with the battlefield so that we can manipulate cancer therapies to change the balance in favor of the immune system. When cancer is detected, it is almost always in the context of a cancer-immunity competition,” said Prof. Ben-Jacob. “We showed that the way to stop and reverse tumor progression without causing strong side effects is an individualized approach of mixed treatments — i.e., four days of radiation followed by a few days of immune system boosting, followed again by four days of radiation, and so on. If provided in the right order, the treatments could indeed shift the balance toward the immune system’s ‘victory’ in reducing the cancer to the moderate-strong state.”
With just a few of these treatment-boosting cycles the cancer-immune balance can be altered to help the immune system bring the cancer to a more moderate state. According to the researchers, once in the cancer is in the intermediate state, it can be brought further down to the weak state with a few pulses of immune boosting.
As the war on cancer continues, scientists like Ben-Jacob and his colleagues remain perseverant. Two years of research, and careful investigation into the body’s communication networks, provides evidence that our immune system may be a key ally in a future cure for cancer. Who knew that understanding cyberwarfare tactics may actually help keep us healthy!
This study was co-authored by Prof. Ben-Jacob of Tel Aviv University’s School of Physics and Astronomy; Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D., of The James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Herbert Levine, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University.