Cell cannibalism may slow, prevent cancer

A new study suggests that cell cannibalism, which is common in tumours, may help to slow or prevent cancer by causing cancer cells to be consumed and destroyed by nearby healthy cells.


An international team of scientists from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, US and the Francis Crick Institute in London stumbled across a completely unexpected new mechanism while trying to identify the proteins that control cell cannibalism in tumour cells.

“The link we’ve found to cell division is really intriguing from the perspective of cancer,” said first author of the study Dr Jo Durgan.

Human epithelial cells, which form many of the surfaces in the body, give rise to over 80 per cent of human cancers.


Normally, epithelial cells remain firmly attached to their surroundings when they divide. But the new study shows that weakened attachments result in more cell cannibalism. This may explain why drugs that weaken cell attachments are effective anti-cancer drugs.

“Entosis is a fascinating process that may play a role in normal physiology, as well as cancer. By studying entosis, we hope to gain insights into fundamental cell biology, as well as to explore intriguing new avenues for cancer research,” said study co-author Dr Oliver Florey.

The study was published recently in the journal eLife.

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