Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Tumors rely on a variety of tricks to grow, spread, and resist our best attempts to destroy them. Now comes word of yet another of cancer’s surprising stunts: when chemotherapy treatment hits hard, some cancer cells survive by cannibalizing other cancer cells.
Researchers recently caught this ghoulish behavior on video. In what, during this Halloween season, might look a little bit like The Blob, you can see a down-for-the-count breast cancer cell (green), treated earlier with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, gobbling up a neighboring cancer cell (red). The surviving cell delivers its meal to internal compartments called lysosomes, which digest it in a last-ditch effort to get some nourishment and keep going despite what should have been a lethal dose of a cancer drug.
Crystal Tonnessen-Murray, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of James Jackson, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, captured these dramatic interactions using time-lapse and confocal microscopy. When Tonnessen-Murray saw the action, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes. Tumor cells eating tumor cells wasn’t something that she’d learned about in school.
As the NIH-funded team described in the Journal of Cell Biology, these chemotherapy-treated breast cancer cells were not only cannibalizing their neighbors, they were doing it with remarkable frequency . But why?
A possible explanation is that some cancer cells resist chemotherapy by going dormant and not dividing. The new study suggests that while in this dormant state, cannibalism is one way that tumor cells can keep going.
The study also found that these acts of cancer cell cannibalism depend on genetic programs closely resembling those of immune cells called macrophages. These scavenging cells perform their important protective roles by gobbling up invading bacteria, viruses, and other infectious microbes. Drug-resistant breast cancer cells have apparently co-opted similar programs in response to chemotherapy but, in this case, to eat their own neighbors.
Tonnessen-Murray’s team confirmed that cannibalizing cancer cells have a survival advantage. The findings suggest that treatments designed to block the cells’ cannibalistic tendencies might hold promise as a new way to treat otherwise hard-to-treat cancers. That’s a possibility the researchers are now exploring, although they report that stopping the cells from this dramatic survival act remains difficult.
 Chemotherapy-induced senescent cancer cells engulf other cells to enhance their survival. Tonnessen-Murray CA, Frey WD, Rao SG, Shahbandi A, Ungerleider NA, Olayiwola JO, Murray LB, Vinson BT, Chrisey DB, Lord CJ, Jackson JG. J Cell Biol. 2019 Sep 17.
Breast Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
James Jackson (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Obesity—which affects about 4 in 10 U.S. adults—increases the risk for lots of human health problems: diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and even anxiety and depression . It’s also been associated with increased accumulation of senescent cells, which are older cells that resist death even as they lose the ability to grow and divide.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have found that when lean mice are fed a high-fat diet that makes them obese, they also have more senescent cells in their brain and show more anxious behaviors . The researchers could reduce this obesity-driven anxiety using so-called senolytic drugs that cleared away the senescent cells. These findings are among the first to provide proof-of-concept that senolytics may offer a new avenue for treating an array of neuropsychiatric disorders, in addition to many other chronic conditions.
As we age, senescent cells accumulate in many parts of the body . But cells can also enter a senescent state at any point in life in response to major stresses, such as DNA damage or chronic infection. Studies suggest that having lots of senescent cells around, especially later in life, is associated with a wide variety of chronic conditions, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, vascular disease, and general frailty.
Senescent cells display a “zombie”-like behavior known as a senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP). In this death-defying, zombie-like state, the cells ramp up their release of proteins, bioactive lipids, DNA, and other factors that, like a zombie virus, induce nearby healthy cells to join in the dysfunction.
In fact, the team behind this latest study, led by James Kirkland, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, recently showed that transplanting small numbers of senescent cells into young mice is enough to cause them weakness, frailty, and persistent health problems. Those ill effects were alleviated with a senolytic cocktail, including dasatinib (a leukemia drug) and quercetin (a plant compound). This drug cocktail overrode the zombie-like SASP phenotype and forced the senescent cells to undergo programmed cell death and finally die.
Previous research indicates that senescent cells also accumulate in obesity, and not just in adipose tissues. Moreover, recent studies have linked senescent cells in the brain to neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, and showed in mice that dasatinib and quercetin helps to alleviate neurodegenerative disease [4,5]. In the latest paper, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, Kirkland and colleagues asked whether senescent cells in the brain also could explain anxiety-like behavior in obesity.
The answer appears to be “yes.” The researchers showed that lean mice, if allowed to feast on a high-fat diet, grew obese and became more anxious about exploring open spaces and elevated mazes.
The researchers also found that the obese mice had an increase in senescent cells in the white matter near the lateral ventricle, a part of the brain that offers a pathway for cerebrospinal fluid. Those senescent cells also contained an excessive amount of fat. Could senolytic drugs clear those cells and make the obesity-related anxiety go away?
To find out, the researchers treated lean and obese mice with a senolytic drug for 10 weeks. The treatment didn’t lead to any changes in body weight. But, as senescent cells were cleared from their brains, the obese mice showed a significant reduction in their anxiety-related behavior. They lost their anxiety without losing the weight!
More preclinical study is needed to understand more precisely how the treatment works. But, it’s worth noting that clinical trials testing a variety of senolytic drugs are already underway for many conditions associated with senescent cells, including chronic kidney disease [6,7], frailty , and premature aging associated with bone marrow transplant .
As a matter of fact, just after the Cell Metabolism paper came out, Kirkland’s team published encouraging though preliminary, first-in-human results of the previously mentioned senolytic drug dasatinib in 14 people with age-related idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred . Caution is warranted as we learn more about the associated risks and benefits, but it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about senolytics in the years ahead.
 Adult obesity facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
 Obesity-induced cellular senescence drives anxiety and impairs neurogenesis. Ogrodnik M et al. Cell Metabolism. 2019 Jan 3.
 Aging, Cell Senescence, and Chronic Disease: Emerging Therapeutic Strategies. Tchkonia T, Kirkland JL. JAMA. 2018 Oct 2;320(13):1319-1320.
 Tau protein aggregation is associated with cellular senescence in the brain. Musi N, Valentine JM, Sickora KR, Baeuerle E, Thompson CS, Shen Q, Orr ME. Aging Cell. 2018 Dec;17(6):e12840.
 Clearance of senescent glial cells prevents tau-dependent pathology and cognitive decline. Bussian TJ, Aziz A, Meyer CF, Swenson BL, van Deursen JM, Baker DJ. Nature. 2018 Oct;562(7728):578-582.
 Inflammation and Stem Cells in Diabetic and Chronic Kidney Disease. ClinicalTrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Senescence in Chronic Kidney Disease. Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Alleviation by Fisetin of Frailty, Inflammation, and Related Measures in Older Adults (AFFIRM-LITE). Clinicaltrials.gov, Dec 2018.
 Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant Survivors Study (HTSS Study). Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Senolytics in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: Results from a first-in-human, open-label, pilot study. Justice JN, Nambiar AN, Tchkonia T, LeBrasseur K, Pascual R, Hashmi SK, Prata L, Masternak MM, Kritchevsky SB, Musi N, Kirkland JL. EBioMed. 5 Jan. 2019. [Epub ahead of print]
Healthy Aging (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Video: Vail Scientific Summit James Kirkland Interview (Youtube)
James Kirkland (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.
Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support: