Knowing how tumours form helps us to break them down. Biologists at UEA have shown how cooperating cancer cells help each other survive by sharing growth factors; understanding this process could lead to new forms of cell therapy that would make breaking down tumours easier.
Treating and curing cancer is one of the most important – and difficult – challenges facing 21st century scientists. Researchers from varied disciplines all over the world are contributing to a growing understanding of the disease in the hope that, bit by bit, we can begin to eliminate the number of untreatable cases.
A lot of effort in cancer research is spent on gaining a deeper understanding of how tumours actually form. If we can build a complete picture of what happens when cells rapidly multiply, then we can better equip ourselves to stop the process. Biologists at UEA have been attempting to do just that, and have made some important steps in the right direction.
Cooperating cancer cells
Dr Marco Archetti’s team have demonstrated how cancer cells can cooperate to gain an advantage over normal cells, allowing them to reproduce more rapidly and overwhelm the healthy ones. Their research showed that cancer cells cooperate with each other in the production of ‘growth factors’ – diffusible molecules produced by the cancer cells that enable tumours to grow.
Cancer cells that don’t produce growth factors can ‘free-ride’ on ones that do, leading to heterogeneity in the tumour that makes it extremely difficult to diagnose and treat.
As a consequence, certain forms of cancer are particularly resistant to treatment and are more likely to reappear in the long term. By highlighting this cooperation between cancerous cells, Archetti’s team have explained the inadequacy of some existing treatments that target these growth factors.
Instead, Archetti’s team is working towards a new kind of cell therapy that takes advantage of this insight – biologists can genetically modify cancer cells to restrict the production of growth factors and insert them into an existing tumour. What results is a ‘tumour within a tumour’ that drives the cooperative cells to extinction, causing the tumour to collapse.
The research could lead to more effective treatment of complex cancers and a reduction in the rate of relapse. It marks a major step forward in the effective understanding, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, adding to a long list of research breakthroughs at UEA that address the greatest scientific questions.
Dr Marco Archetti
Lecturer in Evolutionary Theory
School of Biological Sciences
Marco was an undergraduate student in biology in Perugia (Italy) and Oxford (UK) and did his PhD in evolutionary genetics in Pavia (Italy) and Fribourg (Switzerland). He was then a Junior Research Fellow at St. John's College, Oxford, and did research in game theory at Harvard (USA) and in biomedicine in Basel (Switzerland).