Cancer researchers have been finding more and more evidence lately that cancer cells are capable of using a complex biological 'social network' to communicate with each other throughout the body. In a new article, printed in this week's Trends in Microbiology and presented at a Princeton University workshop titled 'Failures in Clinical Treatment of Cancer', researchers propose using 'cyber-warfare' tactics to disrupt their ability to use this communication network.
"We need to get beyond the notion that cancer is a random collection of cells running amok." said Herbert Levine, according to Science Daily. Levine, who is co-director of Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP), co-authored the article with researchers from Rice University, John Hopkins University, and Tel Aviv University.
"Cancer is a sophisticated enemy," said Eshel Ben-Jacob, fellow co-author and senior investigator at CTBP. "There's growing evidence that cancer cells use advanced communications to work together to enslave normal cells, create metastases, resist drugs and decoy the body's immune system."
This communication mechanism — which is also used by healthy cells — is called Extracellular RNA Communication. By using the body's normal channels of cellular communication, cancer cells can cooperate in collective decision-making to instruct the growth and spread of other cancer cells, warn tumors of the presence of chemotherapy drugs in the bloodstream so that they can go dormant before the drugs can target them, and then sound the 'all-clear' for tumors to reactivate once the drugs have passed from the patient's system.
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Using 'cyber-war' tactics to cut off the cancer cells' ability to communicate with each other would inhibit their growth and spread, and disrupt the cancer cells' defense mechanisms so that conventional chemotherapy methods would work more effectively to destroy them.
"If we can break the communication code, we may be able to prevent the cells from going dormant or to reawaken them for a well-timed chemotherapeutic attack," Ben-Jacob said. "This is just one example. Our extensive studies of the social lives of bacteria suggest a number of others, including sending signals that trigger the cancer cells to turn upon themselves and kill one another."
In their research, the scientists also noticed several close similarities between how cancer tumors and bacteria colonies behave, which they hope will allow them to use bacterial colonies as models to test these 'cyber-war' methods.