Cancer Cells Can Hibernate Like Bears to Evade Chemotherapy, Say Researchers

Cancer cells can hibernate like “bears in winter” to evade harsh chemotherapy – this has been revealed by scientist Dr. Catherine O’Brien from the University Health Network, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and her team through their research.

Their discovery is published in the journal Cell just on January 7, 2021. It is titled “Colorectal Cancer Cells Enter a Diapause-like DTP State to Survive Chemotherapy.”

Cancers Cells Hibernate like Bears

The team discovered that cancer cells, when under threat, have the ability to transition into a protective state, where the cells “rest” until the chemotherapy is removed. The tumor is acting like a whole organism, and as explained by Dr. O’Brien, it is “able to go into a slow-dividing state, conserving energy to help it survive.”

“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.”

– Dr. Aaron Schimmer, Director of the Research Institute and Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret

In the laboratory, the researchers used human colorectal cancer cells and treated them with chemotherapy. It was observed by the researchers that this induced a slow-dividing state across the cancer cells. The cancer cells stopped expanding, and to survive, only a little nutrition is required.

The activation of autophagy, a process in which the cell “devours” its own proteins or other cellular components to survive, is needed by cancer cells in the slow-dividing state. Thus, a small molecule that inhibits autophagy has been tested. And without the protective mechanism, the cancer cells have been killed by chemotherapy.

“This gives us a unique therapeutic opportunity. We need to target cancer cells while they are in this slow-cycling, vulnerable state before they acquire the genetic mutations that drive drug-resistance,” said Dr. O’Brien.

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Source: University Health Network| Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Science Alert, Cell| Journal

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