Math model reveals that spatial tissue structure delays tumor formation

June 20, 2017

The model used in this research was based on tissue like that of the intestinal wall, which contains many pockets or crypts, each containing isolated groups of cells that may accumulate and carry different mutations. If mutations arise only rarely, they may spread unhindered through the pre-cancerous tissue. However, if other mutations occur before the first one has spread throughout the tissue, the diverse mutation clones meet and compete with one another for survival. In such cases, there are many losers and few winners, and only certain mutations are successful in establishing themselves.

In principle, advantageous mutations cannot proliferate as quickly in spatially structured cell populations as in fully mixed or structureless populations. Consequently, the competition between mutations in spatially structured tissue is often very strong, and the mutation accumulation rate is lower than in non-structured populations. According to the study, this is why structured populations take longer to reach a critical number of mutations, thereby delaying the onset of cancer.

"Even though many types of cancer arise in body tissues with clear spatial structures, most earlier models of cancer progression neglected this aspect and were based on well-mixed cell populations", explains Erik Martens. "However, it is important to integrate the structural aspect in order to better predict how pre-cancerous conditions progress. For instance, tissue with spatial structure accumulates fewer mutations over a given period than tissue with unstructured cells. It could therefore be that the number of mutations required to trigger certain types of cancer has been overestimated". The researchers hope that their findings will help improve the interpretation of tissue biopsies and contribute to more realistic predictions of cancer progression.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft