Why Keeping Tumors Alive Can Help You Survive Cancer

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Cancer tumors and survival studyScientists from the University of Cambridge have made findings that suggest keeping tumors alive could help improve patient treatments and overall cancer outcomes. The idea is counterintuitive, to say the least, but it does appear to have merit when the underlying science is examined.

One of the biggest risks in cancer is metastasis, when the cancer cells spread to other organs or systems and form tumors elsewhere in the body. It signals the worsening of the patient, the formation of additional symptoms from this new tumor, and a decline in outlook. The Cambridge researchers were studying fruit flies designed to grow tumors, and they found that the tumor will kill off healthy cells in order to make room for it to expand. It does this by provoking a process called apoptosis, or “programmed cell death,” in its surroundings. Normally, apoptosis is useful to the body since it gets rid of cells that are old or damaged, but the tumor acts indiscriminately.

From this finding, the researchers deduced that if the tumor needs to kill cells to make room for metastasis, preserving these healthy cells could help keep cancers contained and prevent their spread. How this results in the recommendation to keep tumors alive has to do with the problems currently inherent in chemotherapy. One of the long-standing problems with chemotherapy is that there are no known methods that cause the drugs to kill only cancer cells. Healthy cells always get taken out during this process, which is one of the reasons that chemotherapy has such strong side effects. According to the researchers, this could result in situations where chemotherapy ends up clearing out room for the tumor to spread into by eliminating cells which would otherwise block its progress.

Instead of chemotherapy, the researchers are proposing using treatments that block the apoptosis process in surrounding cells, effectively walling off the tumor or locking it in place. It would not be a cure, but it would limit the spread of the cancer and prevent the worsening of certain patients.

The proposal is not foolproof, of course. For starters, it is still in the theoretical stage and more research needs to be done to be more certain about whether the blockade effect would actually take place. The second issue is that some tumors end up in places where they cannot be allowed to persist even if they don’t grow. Tumors that press against nerves, arteries, or are located anywhere along the spine or in the brain, for instance, tend to make doctors nervous even if they aren’t spreading.

Source for Today’s Article:
Piddini, Eugenia et al., “Cell Competition Drives the Growth of Intestinal Adenomas in Drosophila,” Current Biology, 2016; http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(15)01574-2, last accessed February 5, 2016.