- Open Access
A new concept for cancer therapy: out-competing the aggressor
© Deisboeck and Wang; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 21 November 2008
Accepted: 12 December 2008
Published: 12 December 2008
Cancer expansion depends on host organ conditions that permit growth. Since such microenvironmental nourishment is limited we argue here that an autologous, therapeutically engineered and faster metabolizing cell strain could potentially out-compete native cancer cell populations for available resources which in turn should contain further cancer growth. This hypothesis aims on turning cancer progression, and its microenvironmental dependency, into a therapeutic opportunity. To illustrate our concept, we developed a three-dimensional computational model that allowed us to investigate the growth dynamics of native tumor cells mixed with genetically engineered cells that exhibit a higher proliferation rate. The simulation results confirm in silico efficacy of such therapeutic cells to combating cancer cells on site in that they can indeed control tumor growth once their proliferation rate exceeds a certain level. While intriguing from a theoretical perspective, this bold, innovative ecology-driven concept bears some significant challenges that warrant critical discussion in the community for further refinement.
Background and hypothesis
From Eq. (2) follows first that our competition concept should hold primarily at tumor growth stages prior to reaching C C , ahead of the onset of metastasis. However, within that limit one can argue for some flexibility, precisely due to the impact of the tumor. That is, as detailed in , C C is defined as the ratio of an organ's composite volume infrastructure and the physiological functionality it has to provide. Both, a tumor-induced improvement in growth permission or nourishment (e.g., through angiogenesis or cooperative paracrine secretion of growth factors) as well as any cancer growth related (e.g., proteolytic) reduction of tissue functionality would yield an increase in C C . The following section describes the in silico model developed to test our hypothesis on inducing 'therapeutic competition'.
To investigate the effects of engineered cells on the growth of native tumor cells, we present here a three-dimensional (3D) agent-based model that simulates the growth dynamics of both types of cells in parallel. An agent-based model can exhibit aggregated complex behavior patterns upon interactions among agents, and between agents and their environments . Specifically, in modeling cancer systems, an agent often represents an individual cell [4–8]. For now, native tumor cells and engineered cells have the same metabolic and apoptotic rates (an assumption that will be relaxed in future works), but have distinctively different proliferation rates. In our model here, each cell is capable of gaining a certain number of 'proliferation' credits (PCs) at every point in time. If accumulated PCs in a given cell exceed a set threshold, the cell is eligible to proceed with proliferation. This proliferation threshold is pre-defined and (for now, reflecting ubiquitous metabolic house keeping in the same cell lineage) equal for both cell types (an assumption that, again, can easily be relaxed later on). In our model, this proliferation threshold is currently set to 100; however, when a cell has collected (at least) 100 PCs, it does not necessarily mean that the cell will immediately start proliferating; rather, it will have to meet some other microenvironmental conditions (see below). Native tumor cells and engineered cells gain distinct amounts of PCs at every time step, reflecting different proliferative capabilities (rates) of the two different cell types. We denote PCTC for the PCs for a native tumor cell, and PCEC for an engineered cell. In accordance with our concept (see also Eq. (2)), PCEC should always be higher than PCTC. Finally, we purposely set the range of PCTC to 1~33 such that we will have enough bandwidth left (i.e., 34~99; the maximum proliferation rate going to be tested is 99, because the threshold for proliferation has been set to 100) for PCEC in examining the dynamics of how engineered cells combat native tumor cells.
Tumor growth environment
Three cell phenotypes are currently considered: proliferation, quiescence, and apoptosis or death, each for both cell types. Figure 2(b) schematically illustrates our algorithm on determining phenotypic changes. In brief, a cell will die if its nourishing, on-site glucose concentration drops below a pre-defined threshold. The threshold value and glucose consumption rate of a live cell are obtained from an in vitro study on mammary carcinoma cell spheroid growth , and have been rescaled to fit our model (for more details, please see our previous works [7, 10]). A cell starts to proliferate if 1) its PCs exceed the proliferation threshold, as described above, and if 2) the onsite glucose concentration is sufficient, i.e. meets the requirement of keeping a cell alive. The cell then starts to search for an appropriate location for its offspring to reside in (candidate locations are the six grid points surrounding the cell). In our model, the most appropriate location is the one with the highest glucose concentration; if there is more than one location meeting this condition, the cell will randomly choose one. When a cell cannot find an empty location (i.e., a vacant grid point) to proliferate into, it will remain quiescent and continue to search for an empty location at the next time step. For simplicity, all initial native tumor cells and engineered cells start with a quiescent state.
Tumor growth law
where m0 is the tumor mass at origin (t = 0), M is the final mass, and a is a parameter relating to a tumor's characteristics, such as its ability to metastasize or invade. According to the model's setup, a total of 50 native tumor cells are initially placed in the center of the cube. A simulation run elapses for 100 time steps, and each simulation run generates a time-series data of (ΔN/N). As a result, there will be a total of 33 sets of such time-series data being generated, corresponding to 33 possible PCTC.
Discussion and conclusions
Despite undeniable progress over the last decades, overall the clinical outcome of many common cancer types remains discouraging . For 2008, in the Unites States alone, a total of 1,437,180 new cancer cases and 565,650 deaths from cancer are estimated . As such, new, bold concepts are desperately needed. Here, we propose that, based on the reasonable argument that cells depend in their metabolism on limited microenvironmental permission, one could potentially attempt to deplete and ultimately outgrow a solid tumor by deliberately introducing a population of rapidly metabolizing, therapeutic cancer cells. (To reduce the threat of immunologic rejection) these autologous cells would be harvested via biopsy from the patient's own tumor, ex vivo genetically engineered to bolster their growth rate while inserting effective safe-guards, and then re-injected on site to eventually control tumor cells solely by competing more successfully for limited resources. We note that, originally, the now highly publicized paradigm of anti-angiogenesis was built on the very same premise, i.e. to therapeutically reduce vascularization and thus starve the tumor of the extrinsic nutrients it so critically depends on . Our concept, however, is based on the introduction of intrinsic competition and to illustrate it, we have developed a computational, agent-based model where engineered cells differ from native tumor cells in their proliferation rate. We simulate the efficacy of such therapeutic cells, exhibiting different proliferation rates, on out-competing and eventually controlling native tumor cells.
The difference in the resulting growth patterns of tumors (sub-figures in the 2nd row of Figure 4(a) and 4(b)), with PCEC = 34 and PCEC = 99, may seem surprising at first since the PCTC for both simulations has been the same. However, this can be explained by the fact that the more engineered cells are generated, the more likely it is that an empty location in the cube is occupied by these cells; thus, engineered cells in a simulation with higher PCEC rapidly enlarge their domain, which in turn prevents native tumor cells from replication since the possibility of finding an empty lattice location for their offspring to reside in is becoming increasingly low. Furthermore, not only the resulting growth patterns but also the tumor volumes (i.e., number of viable tumor cells) are different. That is, the one in (b) is smaller than that in (a), which implies that tumor cells are controlled more effectively in (b). For instance, at time step 100, tumor cells are still proliferating in (a), while in (b) they have already become entirely growth-suppressed. Thus, higher PCEC achieved faster tumor suppression which is the result of a sequence combining growth arrest (competition for space) with subsequent cell death (competition for nourishment) as illustrated in Figure 6. Based on our results, a two fold increase in EC proliferation rate (PCEC) led to a marked acceleration in tumor control; also, there is an optimum value for PCEC, that is, increasing PCEC beyond 67 fails to add therapeutic value (Figure 5). Together, this argues for a target range in engineering these cells to replicate faster. To provide more insights into a potential clinical scenario, we divide the observed TC dynamics into three phases (see Figure 6). While these time frames very likely depend on a number of parameters in addition to the proliferation rates, such as metabolic and apoptotic rates as well as organ type and thus specific carrying capacity, existence of this last phase – where tumor growth is not only controlled but tumor cells actually start to decline in number – seems to support our in silico concept and therefore warrants further investigations.
However, to provide more detailed quantitative insights into the relationship between tumor cells and engineered cells, we need to amend the current setup in future works. First, we will need to explore the impact of different metabolic rates; that is, engineered cells have to sustain a higher proliferation rate and thus their metabolic consumption should be distinct to reflect the demand; this may require a dynamic adjustment of the proliferation threshold. However, qualitatively, coupling of the engineered cells' higher proliferation rate to a more pronounced metabolic consumption rate, should only accelerate tumor control, hence is largely a means to contain growth of the therapeutic cell line itself. Second, the current microenvironment is overly simplified as only glucose plays a role in determining cell phenotypic transitions. As such, other key environmental factors, such as gradients in oxygen and growth factors [19–22], can be integrated into the lattice. Thirdly, heterogeneous cells should not only compete with each other for limited nutrient resources, but may also be able to co-exist and potentially even cooperate for performing physiological activities .
While the underlying ecology concept of therapeutically exploiting controlled progression to outperform and overgrow the native tumor cell population on site by an aggressively expanding yet therapeutically manageable clone is strikingly simple, careful consideration reveals a number of very significant technical challenges involved in putting this concept into practice. Those include (i) a potentially inductive effect for local tumor invasion and distant metastasis. This is based on the hypothesis that tumors tend to increase their overall surface through spatio-temporal expansion in an effort to avoid the limits imposed by diffusive yet dwindling microenvironmental supplies . Since the metabolism of the engineered cells practically reduces the carrying capacity, C C , the incentive for tumor cells to start invasion and accelerate metastasis should be increased (see Eq. (1)). Tumor induced neovascularization should temporarily stabilize C C , and as such, simultaneous anti-angiogenetic therapy would likely increase the effectiveness of our proposed approach, while adding anti-invasive measures, as far as available, should increase its safety. Related critical issues are (ii) how can one ensure that the therapeutic clone remains genetically stable and thus phenotypically robust so that it neither risks being outdone by the tumor's own ability to progress under stress, nor that it itself mutates to an uncontrollably aggressive strain? Moreover, since the approach is based on the notion of competition amongst cells, any evolvement of cooperation  could jeopardize the therapeutic result. Lastly, (iii) which therapeutic safeguards have to be inserted where to guarantee precise monitoring of the engineered clone in situ, and how, when and where can these therapeutic cells be targeted safely and effectively to avoid that they themselves become a risk for the patient (by e.g. increasing biomechanical pressure on site)?
While this list of technical challenges is by no means exhaustive yet surely already daunting, the theoretical appeal of an innovative, ecology-concept driven therapy that turns the tumor's well known ability to progress under stress into a therapeutic virtue is undeniable, hence should warrant further in silico and experimental investigations into its potential risks and benefits.
This work has been supported in part by NIH grant CA 113004 and by the Harvard-MIT (HST) Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Department of Radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. We thank Dr. Caterina Guiot (Dip. Neuroscience-INFM, Università di Torino) for critical review of the manuscript.
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