R. Axelrod, D. Axelrod and K. Pienta: Evolution of cooperation among tumor cells. PNAS vol 103, 36, pp. 13474-13479, 2006.
A few months ago a friend of mine from Vienna send me the link to this paper (thanks Peter!) and although I skimmed through it at the time only now did I have the chance to read it with a little bit more of care. Robert Axelrod is well known in the complex systems and game theory communities. The research he did almost a quarter of century ago (detailed in his book: The evolution of cooperation) explained how cooperation can be established between two agents (people, elephants or cells) even when the mechanisms of the cooperation have not been agreed beforehand and the agents could gain more in the short term by not cooperating.
Now Axelrod and coauthors speculate on how this approach could be used to study carcinogenesis. They present this in the framework of Hanahan and Weinberg and the six capabilities required to progress towards cancer (self sufficiency in growth signals, ignoring anti growth signals, evasion of apoptosis, angiogenesis, limitless replicative potential and invasion/metastasis).
Now, this paper is no regular paper. Most research papers I read describe a particular piece of clinical research (we have investigated this gene in this context…), mathematical or computational model (in this paper we introduce a model that explains the influence of acidity in…) or are review papers. This one does not describe new clinical research nor does propose a formal way to describe any aspect of oncology nor represents a review of carcinogenesis research from the cooperation point of view. This is not meant to be a criticism. The paper represents for me a new category of papers, one whose aim is not as much as telling finished research as to suggest to the reader new venues of research under a particular perspective.
If that was indeed the aim then this is a good paper. According to the authors, the conventional view on tumor progression using the Hanahan and Weinberg framework is that cells have to acquire all the six capabilities but under the new cooperation based view this is no longer necessary. It could be possible that, at least some of this capabilities are provided by some cells to others and thus cancer could occur when groups of cells displaying a mixed set of capabilities collaborate to create the same effect of a single cell acquiring all the capabilities and reaching fixation (taking over the tumour population) by clonal expansion. One of the things that I was not very comfortable with is that the authors state that cancers are the result of genetic (or epigenetic) instability. Readers of this site probably know that this is currently a hotly debated topic (something as fundamental such as: what starts carcinogenesis) and that in front of the Weinberg school (cancer starts from genetic instability) is the , say, Tomlison school (a bigger number of cells and selection suffices to explain the start of cancer). My view is that if tumour cells can cooperate in order to share capabilities and progress down the path of carcinogenesis then having a higher mutation rate might not be so relevant and thus a cooperation based view on cancer would favour the view that cancer does not really need genetic instability to get started. If this view of mine turns out to be a stupidity remember that you read it here first.
The paper provides a number of examples of capabilities in which cooperation can happen. In angiogenesis (where cells can produce growth factors that benefit not only the producing cell but others in the neighbourhood), self sufficiency from (certain) growth signals (there is a certain amount of growth signals which can be produced in paracrine or autocrine fashion) and in invasion/metastasis (collaboration to degrade the ExtraCellular Matrix).
The authors point out that this view of carcinogenesis arises a number of new research questions such as what are the resources that can be shared among cooperating tumour cells, what mechanisms are used to share these resources, how does this affect the order in which mutations appear (since mutations can appear in parallel)? Interesting questions but it might take some for someone to come with the answers…if it is that answers can be found using evolutionary cooperation.