Friday, February 09, 2007

Axelrod et al: Evolution of cooperation among tumor cells

R. Axelrod, D. Axelrod and K. Pienta: Evolution of cooperation among tumor cells. PNAS vol 103, 36, pp. 13474-13479, 2006.

A few months ago a friend of mine from Vienna send me the link to this paper (thanks Peter!) and although I skimmed through it at the time only now did I have the chance to read it with a little bit more of care. Robert Axelrod is well known in the complex systems and game theory communities. The research he did almost a quarter of century ago (detailed in his book: The evolution of cooperation) explained how cooperation can be established between two agents (people, elephants or cells) even when the mechanisms of the cooperation have not been agreed beforehand and the agents could gain more in the short term by not cooperating.

Now Axelrod and coauthors speculate on how this approach could be used to study carcinogenesis. They present this in the framework of Hanahan and Weinberg and the six capabilities required to progress towards cancer (self sufficiency in growth signals, ignoring anti growth signals, evasion of apoptosis, angiogenesis, limitless replicative potential and invasion/metastasis).

Now, this paper is no regular paper. Most research papers I read describe a particular piece of clinical research (we have investigated this gene in this context...), mathematical or computational model (in this paper we introduce a model that explains the influence of acidity in...) or are review papers. This one does not describe new clinical research nor does propose a formal way to describe any aspect of oncology nor represents a review of carcinogenesis research from the cooperation point of view. This is not meant to be a criticism. The paper represents for me a new category of papers, one whose aim is not as much as telling finished research as to suggest to the reader new venues of research under a particular perspective.

If that was indeed the aim then this is a good paper. According to the authors, the conventional view on tumor progression using the Hanahan and Weinberg framework is that cells have to acquire all the six capabilities but under the new cooperation based view this is no longer necessary. It could be possible that, at least some of this capabilities are provided by some cells to others and thus cancer could occur when groups of cells displaying a mixed set of capabilities collaborate to create the same effect of a single cell acquiring all the capabilities and reaching fixation (taking over the tumour population) by clonal expansion. One of the things that I was not very comfortable with is that the authors state that cancers are the result of genetic (or epigenetic) instability. Readers of this site probably know that this is currently a hotly debated topic (something as fundamental such as: what starts carcinogenesis) and that in front of the Weinberg school (cancer starts from genetic instability) is the , say, Tomlison school (a bigger number of cells and selection suffices to explain the start of cancer). My view is that if tumour cells can cooperate in order to share capabilities and progress down the path of carcinogenesis then having a higher mutation rate might not be so relevant and thus a cooperation based view on cancer would favour the view that cancer does not really need genetic instability to get started. If this view of mine turns out to be a stupidity remember that you read it here first.

The paper provides a number of examples of capabilities in which cooperation can happen. In angiogenesis (where cells can produce growth factors that benefit not only the producing cell but others in the neighbourhood), self sufficiency from (certain) growth signals (there is a certain amount of growth signals which can be produced in paracrine or autocrine fashion) and in invasion/metastasis (collaboration to degrade the ExtraCellular Matrix).

The authors point out that this view of carcinogenesis arises a number of new research questions such as what are the resources that can be shared among cooperating tumour cells, what mechanisms are used to share these resources, how does this affect the order in which mutations appear (since mutations can appear in parallel)? Interesting questions but it might take some for someone to come with the answers...if it is that answers can be found using evolutionary cooperation.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mitochondria and apoptosis

A couple of posts ago I mentioned this research in which RNAi was used to restore the functionality of the mitochondria, especially its role in apoptosis. Now I read that the same results are being obtained by Dr. Michelakis and colleagues at the University of Alberta in Canada using a well known drug, dichloroacetate (DCA).

DCA is an affordable drug that has been previously used to treat metabolic disorders so it is known to be safe and has no patent. What should have been a blessing could also be a curse since there is little incentive to large pharmaceutical companies to finance the clinical trials. The news has been reported in all sorts of news outlets from Cancer Cell to Slashdot and including The Economist. In this website you will be able to find the latest results as well as information on how to donate money so Dr. Michelakis and his group can finance the clinical trials.

Incidentally, in the link pointing to these news in the online version of The New Scientist, a researchers from Dundee mentions something I did not think of at that time. It could be that the metabolism and not genetic mutations spark cancer. Of course for the metabolic switch to take place you will still need hypoxia (low oxygen due to distance to vasculature) which means, if I am not wrong, a neoplasm.

Monday, February 05, 2007

World cancer day

I guess I missed it. It seems that yesterday, 4th of February, was the world day of cancer. As many other "World day of...", this WOC was one of these events designed to raise awareness of the problem of cancer in the world, although given that cancer is in the top two of the diseases that are responsible for more deaths in the developed world I guess that many people are more than aware of it.

The headlines I am reading sound actually quite optimistic. Death rates are decreasing due to early detection and improved therapies. Of course nobody is suggesting that cancer will be eradicated but that it will become a chronic disease. I am not sure of how much impact has mathematical oncology had on all these successes but I suspect that it has been limited. For one, mathematical oncology is a fairly relative newcomer in the world of oncology and oncology is a discipline in which cutting edge discoveries take many years (or decades) to reach the public. For another one, I think it is highly unlikely that there will ever be headlines of the kind "theoretician cures cancer". Theoreticians deduce rules or laws that try to describe things like, for instance, cancer growth. These can be used by experimentalists to focus on the more promising areas of research and design the therapies with more likelihood of success faster.

Another added advantage of theoreticians is that they can connect research in different areas. Things that apply to cancer evolution can also be used to study the evolutionary dynamics of other diseases. Many diseases are dangerous due to their capability of evolving and being able to tell what (phenotypes) to expect in the near future from what is there now (genome) would be crucial to deal with them. This week's issue of science carries a paper ( about how the H5N1 virus (infamous for the avian flu) suggest that only two mutations stand between the current problem and one in which the virus could affect and spread in humans causing a global pandemic. Is there anything that we know about how a tumour evolves that could be used here? I would not be surprised if the answer turns to be positive.