Tapping into an ancient evolutionary survival mechanism, cancer cells enter into a sluggish, slow-dividing state to survive the harsh environment created by chemotherapy or other targeted agents.
In research published January 7, 2020 in Cell, Princess Margaret Scientist Dr. Catherine O’Brien and team discovered that when under threat, all cancer cells — rather than just a subset — have the ability to transition into this protective state, where the cells “rest” until the threat, or chemotherapy, is removed.
It is the first study to identify that cancer cells hijack an evolutionary conserved program to survive chemotherapy. Furthermore, the researchers show that novel therapeutic strategies aimed at specifically targeting cancer cells in this slow-dividing state can prevent cancer regrowth.
“The tumour is acting like a whole organism, able to go into a slow-dividing state, conserving energy to help it survive,” says Dr. O’Brien, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto.
“There are examples of animals entering into a reversible and slow-dividing state to withstand harsh environments.
“It appears that cancer cells have craftily co-opted this same state for their survival benefit.”
Dr. Aaron Schimmer, Director of the Research Institute and Senior Scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, notes that this research shows that cancer cells hibernate, like “bears in winter.”
He adds: “We never actually knew that cancer cells were like hibernating bears. This study also tells us how to target these sleeping bears so they don’t hibernate and wake up to come back later, unexpectedly.