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Cancer cells cannibalise healthy cells after chemotherapy © Tonnessen-Murray et al., 2019

Cancer cells cannibalise nearby cells after chemotherapy

Published: 22nd September, 2019 at 08:00
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Chemotherapy can sometimes send cancer cells into a dormant state, which will engulf nearby cells to recover.

Cancerous cells will consume nearby cells in order to regrow after chemotherapy, new research suggests. This ‘cannibalism’ was discovered by scientists at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, who identified whole cells engulfed within cancer cells in mice.


Chemotherapy drugs target the DNA of a cancer cell, the destruction of which, in most cases, causes the cell to die.

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But certain breast cancer cells are only stunned by chemotherapy, lying dormant instead of dead, in a state referred to as ‘senescence’. These senescent cancer cells can then give rise to relapse tumours, and as such the survival rates of these breast cancers are low.

James Jackson, one of the researchers on the study, had previously identified that breast cancers with a gene called TP53 responded to chemotherapy with senescence. The team wanted to better understand how the senescent cells were able to regrow even after entering their dormant state.

"Understanding the properties of these senescent cancer cells that allow their survival after chemotherapy treatment is extremely important," said Crystal A. Tonnessen-Murray, who took part in the research.

In the lab, researchers saw whole tumour cells being engulfed by the senescent cancer cells. Once ‘eaten’, the cell would be digested, providing the cancer with the nutrients and energy it needed to regrow into a tumour.

These Hannibal cells survived longer than those that did not cannibalise their neighbouring cells. The cannibalism was found in cells kept in cultures, as well as in tumours grown in mice. The researchers also found lung and bone cancers were capable of engulfing nearby cells.

"Inhibiting this process may provide new therapeutic opportunities, because we know that it is the breast cancer patients with tumours that undergo TP53-mediated senescence in response to chemotherapy that have poor response and poor survival rates," said Jackson.


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Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.


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