Why We Should Study Cancer Like We Study Ecosystems

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Author: Rachel Nuwer


Sometimes, thinking about an old problem from a refreshing new angle is just the thing needed to find that eureka moment.

Cancer, one of the most notorious medical maladies, has been studied intensely in the current era of modern medicine. But a growing number of researchers think that bringing a fresh, out-of-the-box approach to understanding the disease may lead to some novel insights and, perhaps, solutions. And the subject that they’re hoping can serve as a window into the study of cancer may surprise you: ecology.

On face value, oncology and ecology seem vastly different. For starters, one is localized to specific cells in the body, while the other by definition spans the entire globe. But rather than labeling cancer as a group of mutated cells, as the thinking goes, we should see cancer as a disruption in the balance of a complex microenvironment in the human body.

Like a damaging invasive beetle eating its way through forests in Colorado, a novel disease breaking out in populations of wild birds, or loggers mowing down parts of the Amazon rainforest, cancer throws a monkey wrench into an otherwise placid, balanced system.

This way of thinking makes cancer seem even more complex than it already is, but it could provide insights that ultimately make cancer more treatable, propose researchers from the Moffet Cancer Center in a paper published in the journal Interface Focus.

“Einstein is known to have said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” they write. “It turns out that complexity has its place and, as convenient as it would be for cancer biologists to study tumor cells in isolation, that makes as much sense as trying to understand frogs without considering that they tend to live near swamps and feast on insects.”

We tend to think of cancer only in terms of mutated cells, the authors continue. But adopting this narrow approach is like trying to understand why a frog has a sticky tongue without taking into account that frogs use their tongues to catch insects. Cancer cells, likewise, need context. A voracious cancer cell, for example, may situate itself next to a blood vessel not by chance, but so it can obtain more nutrients and oxygen to support its unlimited division.

Cancer cells must compete within the body for nutrients and other resources, just like animals living in an environment must compete with one another in order to survive. This means that cancer, like any organism, must adapt to its environment in order to thrive. The researchers explain:

It is now beginning to be widely accepted that cancer is not just a genetic disease but the one in which evolution plays a crucial role. This means that tumour cells evolve, adapt to and change the environment in which they live. The ones that fail to do so will ultimately become extinct.

The ones that do, will have a chance to invade and metastasize. The capacity of a tumour cell to adapt to a new environment will thus be determined by environment and the cellular species from the original site, to which it has already painstakingly adapted.

So how can all of this theory be applied in real life? The environmental approach to understanding cancer is so complex that it rules out normal experiments; they could easily go awry with so many different components to consider. Instead, the researchers suggest turning to mathematics and computational for understanding the greater environmental context that leads to cancer.

Ecologists use one such mathematical approach, game theory, as a way to study evolutionary biology and the way animals interact:

The force of natural selection keeps ecosystem denizens focused on optimizing the bottom line: long-term reproduction. In the games studied by evolutionary game theoreticians, individuals compete for available resources using a variety of strategies. These features and behaviours, known as the phenotypic strategy, determine the winners and losers of evolution.

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