UF researchers ask, ‘What if oncologists thought like ecologists?’
Above: Like ants in a colony, cancer cells must communicate with each other to survive. Getty Images
What do wildlife and cancer cells have in common?
Quite a lot, argues a new article authored by University of Florida researchers.
The article is the latest piece of scholarship to emerge from a decade-long collaboration among three scientists: Brent Reynolds, professor in the Lillian S. Wells department of neurosurgery at UF Health; Madan Oli, professor in the UF/IFAS department wildlife ecology and conservation; and Monika Oli, senior lecturer in the UF/IFAS department of microbiology and cell science.
The authors hope their work will provide a theoretical basis for future applied cancer research.
“In this paper, we draw parallels between ecological systems and cancer cell biology,” Madan Oli said. “We think that an eco-oncological perspective can help guide new research on cancer recurrence, metastatic tumors, treatments and improving patients’ quality of life.”
The article makes the case that oncologists and ecologists study fundamentally the same thing, Reynolds said.
“When I started to spend time with Madan and other ecologists, I realized that the conversations they were having were very similar to the conversation I was having with oncologists. We were all talking about populations—in the ecologists’ case, animal or plant populations, in the oncologists’ case, populations of cells,” Reynolds said.
Like cells that turn cancerous, animal and plant populations can get out of control or invade new areas, which affects the health of the entire ecosystem, the authors say.
However, there was one big difference between the two disciplines, Reynolds explained.
“The ecologist’s goal is to keep populations stable and keep pests and invasive species at low levels. In comparison, the oncologist’s goal is to eliminate a population of cancer cells altogether,” Reynolds said. “But, as an ecologist or a microbiologist will tell you, totally eliminating a problematic animal, plant or bacterium can have negative side effects.”
For example, pesticides and antibiotics can kill beneficial insects and beneficial bacteria, respectively. They can also lead to organisms that are resistant to those pesticides or antibiotics.
“This is natural selection. Some individuals are going to be naturally resistant to a control measure, and they will survive and reproduce. Eventually, most of the population is not going to respond to the treatment,” said Monika Oli.
This same phenomenon can happen during cancer treatment, in Reynolds’ comparison. “In oncology, when we are giving a patient chemotherapy or radiation, the goal is to kill all the cancer cells. But this also damages healthy cells, and some cancer cells will be resistant to the treatment. These resistant cancer cells can go on to form tumors of their own,” he said.
In the article, the authors suggest that oncological research might look to integrated pest management for new approaches to cancer treatment.
Integrated pest management (IPM) is commonly used today in agriculture, environmental horticulture and natural area conservation. IPM combines several different pest control practices rather than relying on one. For example, in addition to some pesticide use, a farmer using IPM might create conditions that benefit insects that eat the target pest. This minimizes negative side effects of pest control while keeping pest populations at relatively low levels.
“In the paper, we use the analogy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to talk about what new approaches to cancer treatment might look like. The idea is to use a combination of treatments that make conditions unfavorable to cancer,” Monika Oli said.
Reynolds’ clinical research has explored some of these treatments.
For example, his lab has investigated ways to deprive tumors of glucose, their main food supply. “In a population of animals, if you limit their food supply, their birth rates are going to decrease. We’ve found that if you limit the supply of glucose to a tumor, the tumor shrinks,” he said.
He has also researched ways to disrupt cancer cells’ ability to communicate with each other. Reynolds’ study indicated that blocking the communication channels between cancer cells made tumors more susceptible to chemotherapy.
Madan Oli compares this to scrambling communication in a colony of ants, hive of bees or school of fish.
“The survival of organisms like ants, bees or schooling fish depends on them talking to each other. Without that, they can’t share information about food or coordinate a defense. So, the question is, what if you could do that but with cancer cells in a tumor?” Madan Oli said.