Deadly Lesson: Triggered By Stress, Cancer Cells Learn How To Survive

New framework for research based on apparent capacity of cancer cells to adapt proposed by Technion scientists. 

Conceptual illustration of the chess battle between cancer cells and anti-cancer drugs. Credit: Maayan Visuals

Most scientists have long believed that random mutation is what enables cancer to survive and spread in different parts of the body. But that assumption may be dead wrong, a trio of Israeli researchers say.

This astonishing new take on how cancers survive and grow is offered up in an opinion piece in iScience by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Aseel Shomar, Prof. Omri Barak and Prof. Naama Brenner, who propose instead that cancer cells learn and adapt to changing environments in the body, actively searching for solutions enabling them to survive.

This idea — which could eventually help greatly reduce cancer deaths — contradicts the common understanding that random mutations are what give cancer cells drug resistance and allow them to metastasize.

However, the Israeli scientists saw mounting evidence from research groups around the world that these abilities may not be random at all. After all, treatment plans based on the random mutation theory have not significantly increased patients’ life expectancy.

Technion researchers (from left) Prof. Naama Brenner, Prof. Omri Barak and Aseel Shomar contend cancer cells “learn” to survive in reaction to stress. (Rami Shelush/Office of the Technion Spokesperson)

Obviously, cells have no brain. The learning process is triggered by stress, Brenner proposes.

When a cancer cell senses stress, it seeks relief by embarking on a trial-and-error process within the gene regulatory network, changing the way existing genes are expressed. An interaction that reduces the stress gets strengthened.

Although it seems unlikely that such a process would work, computer simulations based on learning theory showed that cells could, in fact, learn and adapt in this way.

Previous studies by Brenner, Erez Braun and others from the Technion’s Network Biology Research Lab have shown that yeast cells also adapt to new environments and develop new abilities.

A conceptual illustration of the chess battle between cancer cells and anti-cancer drugs. (Maayan Visuals)

The three researchers say that this new understanding of cancer cells is a crucial step toward developing more effective treatments.

“There is an interaction between the individual cell and the tissue,” Brenner said.

“The cell has the capacity to explore, but the tissue imposes order and stability. We propose that using the approach and methods of learning theory will help investigate this interaction in greater depth. Cancer could perhaps be treated through strengthening the tissue’s ability to calm and control the pre-cancerous cell.”

This new approach could eventually lead to lots of lives being saved. Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths, the World Health Organization reports. The most common cancers are of the breast, lung, colon/rectum and prostate, the organization said.

The post Triggered by stress, cancer cells learn how to survive appeared first on ISRAEL21c.