Cell cannibalism may slow or prevent the growth of cancer cells by causing them to be consumed and destroyed by nearby healthy cells, a study has found.
Cell cannibalism, also called entosis, occurs when one cell surrounds, kills and digests another. Entosis does not typically happen between healthy cells but it is common in tumours.
Researchers from Babraham Institute in the UK found that cannibalism can be triggered by cell division, when one cell divides to form two.
Since uncontrolled cell division is a hallmark of cancer, this suggests that cannibalism may have a role to play in resisting cancer, they said.
The team examined human epithelial cells. These cells form many of the surfaces in the body and give rise to over 80 per cent of human cancers.
Normally, epithelial cells remain firmly attached to their surroundings when they divide.
The team found that weakened attachments result in more cell cannibalism explaining why drugs that weaken cell attachments are effective anti-cancer drugs.
"We set out to identify the proteins that control cell cannibalism in tumour cells, by using time-lapse microscopy to watch this process in action, we stumbled across a completely unexpected new mechanism," said Jo Durgan from Babraham Institute.
"The link we have found to cell division is really intriguing from the perspective of cancer," Durgan said.
Cell cannibalism has a complex relationship with cancer and it is not totally clear whether it helps or hinders tumour growth.
However, the discovery that dividing cells are more likely to be cannibalised by other cells suggests that entosis may help to slow or prevent cancer by causing cancer cells to be consumed and destroyed by nearby healthy cells, researchers said.
"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 Oliver Florey from Babraham Institute.
The study was published in the journal eLife.