Cell competition in tumor evolution and heterogeneity: Merging past and present

Christopher J Pelham, Masaki Nagane, Esha Madan
Seminars in Cancer Biology 2019 July 16
In many cases, cancers are difficult to eliminate because they develop resistance to a primary chemotherapy or targeted therapy. Tumors grow into diverse cell subpopulations, increasing the ability to resist elimination. The phenomenon of 'cell competition' describes our body's natural surveillance system to optimize tissue fitness by forcing viable but aberrant cells to undergo cell death. Cell competition is not simply comparison of cell division potential. Competition factors signal for 'loser' cell elimination and 'winner' cell dominance. New evidence demonstrates it is possible to restrict cancer growth by strengthening the cell fitness of surrounding healthy tissue via anti-apoptotic pathways. Hence, cell competition provides strong conceptual explanation for oncogenesis, tumor growth and suppression. Tumor heterogeneity is a hallmark of many cancers and establishes gradients in which competitive interactions are able to occur among tumor cell subpopulations as well as neighboring stromal tissue. Here we review cellular/molecular competition pathways in the context of tumor evolution, heterogeneity and response to interventions. We propose strategies to exploit these mediators and design novel broad-spectrum therapeutic approaches that eliminate cancer and enhance fitness of neighboring tissue to improve patient outcomes.

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