New study describes cancer's cheating ways

June 8, 2015

In some ways, cancer cells are like selfish people: They focus on their own goals, even at the expense of the greater good.

At least, that’s one way to summarize a new study that included Athena Aktipis, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. She, along with several international colleagues, helped author a paper that explores how cancers can bypass the protective mechanisms used by multicellular forms to ensure their survival and well-being. crested saguaro cactus fanlike irregularities Patterns of abnormal growth in some flowers and plants result in rare features known as fasciations. Here, a crested saguaro cactus displays fanlike irregularities thought to be the result of somatic mutations in their stem cells. Photo by: Creative Commons License Download Full Image

In other words, cancer cells cheat by ignoring common strategies of cooperation to reach their goal. It’s a revelation that’s changing the understanding of cancer.

The study, which was conceived and largely written at the Institute for Advanced Study, or Wissenschaftskolleg, in Berlin, identifies five foundations of multicellularity:

• Inhibiting cell proliferation

• Regulation of cell death

• Division of labor

• Resource transport

• Creation and maintenance of the extracellular environment

“The idea of the five foundations really builds on decades of work in the field of multicellularity evolution,” Aktipis said, referring to a subfield of evolutionary biology concerned with such questions as how cells come together to form higher level entities that have functions of their own.

Without these mechanisms, multicellular organisms – from fungi to humans – could not have evolved into the endless forms we see today. Cancer cells, however, have the capacity to break free of this multicellular tyranny over their behavior.

As the authors note, research and clinical practice to date have focused primarily on the first two violations of the multicellular framework, namely limits to cell proliferation and regulation of cell death. In both cases, cancer appears capable of short-circuiting the built-in multicellular constraints, exhibiting the unchecked proliferation and growth characteristic of cancerous tumors.

The study compares the five foundations of multicellularity with so-called hallmarks of cancer, a set of underlying principles governing cancer behavior, proposed by researchers in 2000.

According to the cancer-hallmarks framework, cancer cells supply their own growth signals, resist inhibitory signals limiting their growth, resist programmed cell death (known as apoptosis), multiply indefinitely, stimulate blood vessels to supply tumors with nutrients (angiogenesis) and activate invasion of local tissues and the spread of cancer cells to distant sites (invasion and metastasis).

“For us, putting together the hallmarks of cancer with the foundations of multicellularity suggested that maybe these more economic forms of cheating have been neglected as components of cancer and contributors to cancer progression,” Aktipis said. “Potentially we may be able to do better by creating diagnostics and measures of those types of economic cheating.”

Although the study found evidence of the five foundations of multicellularity across the tree of life, it is clear that mechanisms for suppressing cheating are not equally divided among all life forms. For instance, animals appear to be more susceptible to cancers than plants and other multicellular organisms. This may be due to higher metabolic rates that leave animals more vulnerable to cheating in resource allocation and division of labor, while animal circulatory systems may enhance an organism’s risk of metastasis.

“I think of it as the economics of multicellularity,” Aktipis said. “How do the resources get where they need to go, how does the labor get done that needs to get done to make the body work, how does the shared environment get taken care of and maintained? These things are important and perhaps underappreciated aspects of maintaining an effective multicellular body and suppressing cancer that would otherwise evolve.”

A greater focus on cancer’s subversion of the economic foundations of multicellularity may give rise to innovative new strategies for identifying cancer, charting its trajectory and fashioning effective treatments.

“This paper is a call to action for the evolutionary biology, comparative genomic and evolution of multicellularity communities to really come together and to collect data that will allow us to answer some of these big, outstanding questions about cancer suppression,” Aktipis said.

“Together we can look to cancer across life for answers about the nature of cancer and new tools that can be used for cancer prevention in humans.”

Athena Aktipis is a researcher in the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Evolution and Medicine and assistant professor in ASU's Department of Psychology. Her forthcoming book is titled: "Evolution in the Flesh: Cancer and the Transformation of Life," published by Princeton University Press.

A longer version of this story can be found here.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


Students see ASU rocket club as step toward career

June 8, 2015

When test-firing different propellant options, it’s a good idea to let the local police and fire departments know, said Lauren Brunacini, ASU’s Daedalus Astronautics former club president.

Brunacini and the club use test fires to calculate how well different propellants would work for the rockets they build right here at ASU. ASU Daedalus Astronautics club The Daedalus Astronautics club prepares for a paraffin hybrid fuel testing at the Challenger Space Center in Peoria. Photo by: Daedalus Astronautics Download Full Image

“When you see these test fires work, it’s the best feeling,” Brunacini said. “We’re all pyros. We like to see stuff set fire. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work and explodes, that works too.”

Daedalus, a student club that focuses on teaching students rocketry with a focus in chemistry propulsion, provides hands-on experience and academic research. In mythology, Daedalus created wings for himself and his son, Icarus, who drowned after flying too close to the sun and melting the wax that held the wings together.

Brunacini, a mechanical engineering master’s student and Daedalus member, said club members learn a variety of practical and life skills, from using power tools to working in teams.

Brunacini said new members tend to not have much rocketry experience, so they are given a project in the first semester to learn the basics of rocketry.

They are divided into groups to design and build a rocket for a sort of drag racing competition. The winner must hit 5,000 feet, which takes anywhere from three to six seconds, Brunacini said. A device that is attached to the rocket measures this by sensing the pressure in the atmosphere. Losers have to pay for the winners’ lunch at In-N-Out Burger.

Though rockets and engines are still being built throughout the rest of the school year, Daedalus also focuses on academics.

Students utilize the club and its equipment to conduct honors theses, class projects or research of their own interest. Brunacini said some students receive the ASU/NASA Space Grant, which allows them to conduct research under a professor.

For example, one student is working on 3-D printing fuel grains, which are used as fuel for a rocket. Brunacini said many research projects stem from curiosity.

“Things like 3-D printing an entire rocket engine starts with, ‘Hey I wonder if we can do this. Let’s try it,’” Brunacini said.

Student research is also put into competition in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a conference for the aerospace community. The conference has categories for undergraduate research, graduate research and outreach events.

Daedalus won the outreach competition this year with Brunacini’s paper detailing the club’s different outreach events to educate people, from elementary school children to adults.

In one outreach event, team members attend Navajo Elementary School in Scottsdale for three days to teach 75 fifth-graders about the fundamentals of rocketry, Brunacini said. The students design rockets on the second day and launch them on the third day.

William Templeton, a chemical engineering sophomore, said he tries to make all of the outreach events because he enjoys kids’ reactions to building and launching rockets. Templeton joined Daedalus in the fall when he went under the club’s tent to avoid rain at Passport ASU, a club fair held at the beginning of the school year.

“It was divine intervention,” Templeton said. “It’s worked out pretty well for me.”

Templeton said he has learned more about rocket science in the club than he has in classes since he is working on general education credits. He said he has learned about organic chemistry because of the fuel sources he has worked with, and he’s expecting that to help when he takes organic chemistry next year.

“They’ll be talking about some project, and I’m like, ‘That’s cool, how do you do that?’ and you branch off and learn a whole new section of rocketry,” Templeton said.

Thomas Chester, a sophomore studying aerospace engineering with a focus in astronautics, said a person can come in with no experience and be able to have a rocketry conversation in three months if he or she gets involved.

“I try to come in whenever I have the chance; even just sitting in a conversation with someone you can learn all kinds of stuff listening to people talk out there,” Chester said.

Team members also have the opportunity to become certified through the Tripoli Rocketry Association Certification Process. They have to successfully launch a rocket with a specific type of motor and hit a certain distance range to certify for different levels. Some levels also require a test to show how much the person knows of basic rocketry and safety measures.

The club also paves a way for rocketry internships, according to Brunacini. Many Daedalus members have worked for Raytheon, an international aerospace and defense company with a Tucson location that sponsors the club.

“Best-case scenario with the club is I can stay with it all four years and maybe get a job out of it,” Chester said. “Worst case is I made some friends and had a lot of fun. Either way it’s a pretty good deal.”

Written by Alicia Canales