Dr. Kenneth Pienta Laboratory

Understanding cancer as an ecosystem: Ecotherapy

We propose that there is an opportunity to devise new cancer therapies based on the recognition that tumors have properties of ecological systems. Traditionally, localized treatment has targeted the cancer cells directly by removing them (surgery) or killing them (chemotherapy and radiation). These modes of therapy have not always been effective because many tumors recur after these therapies, either because not all of the cells are killed (local recurrence) or because the cancer cells had already escaped the primary tumor environment (distant recurrence). There has been an increasing recognition that the tumor microenvironment contains host noncancer cells in addition to cancer cells, interacting in a dynamic fashion over time. The cancer cells compete and/or cooperate with nontumor cells, and the cancer cells may compete and/or cooperate with each other. It has been demonstrated that these interactions can alter the genotype and phenotype of the host cells as well as the cancer cells. The interaction of these cancer and host cells to remodel the normal host organ microenvironment may best be conceptualized as an evolving ecosystem. In classic terms, an ecosystem describes the physical and biological components of an environment in relation to each other as a unit. Here, we review some properties of tumor microenvironments and ecological systems and indicate similarities between them. We propose that describing tumors as ecological systems defines new opportunities for novel cancer therapies and use the development of prostate cancer metastases as an example. We refer to this as "ecological therapy" for cancer.

prostate cancer


Pienta KJ, McGregor N, Axelrod R, Axelrod DE.  Ecological therapy for cancer: defining tumors using an ecosystem paradigm suggests new opportunities for novel cancer treatments. Transl Oncol. 2008 Dec;1(4):158-64.

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