It takes a village… raise a child but, according to the latest paper from Kornelia Polyak and Doris Tabassum from Dana Farber, it also takes a village to raise a tumour cell. Which basically means that yes, context matters in cancer.

This is a very interesting paper and one of the reasons is that, while the message won’t be news to many people in the mathematical oncology community, Dr Polyak is an MD/PhD and her voice resonates in the medical community in ways that ours doesn’t.

What do Polyak and Tabassum say? That cancer cells behave as communities, that cooperation is a key aspect that should be studied and considered when designing therapeutic strategies. Here’s a figure from a paper we wrote with Doug Strand and others when he was at Vanderbilt University:

cooperationThis illustrates Polyak and Tabassum’s point that interactions between cancer cells are not exclusively competitive but that there is a lot of richness that could be useful therapeutically.

Importantly, their paper also highlights the importance of theory in cancer research. Polyak and Tabassum are not uncritical: they rightly point to the assumptions mathematical models make and the parameters they use as potential weak points. But they also point out that computational models are key if we want to better understand the effects of the microenvironment of the cancer. They mention the richness and resolution of data they generate. They are also cheaper and much faster and can explore hypothesis whose duration would be out of reach with any other technique. I am sure a lot of biologists and even some clinicians are now paying attention.

PS: Updated Polyak’s gender in the post. Thanks Jill Gallaher for pointing this out.