Cancer researchers from Rice University have deciphered the operating principles of a genetic switch that cancer cells use to decide when to metastasize and invade other parts of the body. The study found that the on-off switch's dynamics also allows a third choice that lies somewhere between "on" and "off." The extra setting both explains previously confusing experimental results and opens the door to new avenues of cancer treatment.
The study appears online this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Cancer cells behave in complex ways, and this work shows how such complexity can arise from the operation of a relatively simple decision-making circuit," said study co-author Eshel Ben-Jacob, a senior investigator at Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) and adjunct professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice. "By stripping away the complexity and starting with first principles, we get a glimpse of the 'logic of cancer' -- the driver of the disease's decision to spread."
In the PNAS study, Ben-Jacob and CTBP colleagues Jos Onuchic, Herbert Levine, Mingyang Lu and Mohit Kumar Jolly describe a new theoretical framework that allowed them to model the behavior of microRNAs in decision-making circuits. To test the framework, they modeled the behavior of a decision-making genetic circuit that cells use to regulate the forward and backward transitions between two different cell states, the epithelial and mesenchymal. Known respectively as the E-M transition (EMT) and the M-E transition (MET), these changes in cell state are vital for embryonic development, tissue engineering and wound healing. During the EMT, some cells also form a third state, a hybrid that is endowed with a special mix of both epithelial and mesenchymal abilities, including group migration.
The EMT transition is also a hallmark of cancer metastasis. Cancer cells co-opt the process to
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