Reversing cancer?

I recently read an absolutely fascinating New York Times article (see: on how cancer research in the past couple of decades has been so focused on genetic mutations that other factors, namely the interactions between rogue cells and surrounding tissue, have been ignored…until recently, that is. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you how many studies I have read on the importance of the bone marrow microenvironment for the survival and growth of myeloma cells. Heaps!

Back to the article now…Of particular interest (to me, at any rate) are the paragraphs describing the experiments that indicated that cancer cells could become normal in the right environment (see “Struggle for Acceptance” and “Sleeping Cells Awakened”). Well how about that? Reversing cancer? What a stunning thought…

And also this excerpt: The basic idea — still in the experimental stages — is that cancer cells cannot turn into a lethal tumor without the cooperation of other cells nearby. That may be why autopsies repeatedly find that most people who die of causes other than cancer have at least some tiny tumors in their bodies that had gone unnoticed. According to current thinking, the tumors were kept in check, causing no harm.

It also may mean that cancers grow in part because normal cells surrounding them allowed them to escape. It also means that there might be a new way to think about treatment: cancer might be kept under control by preventing healthy cells around it from crumbling.

Wow…”cancer might be kept under control by preventing healthy cells around it from crumbling.” 

Yes, a fascinating read. Highly recommended.


  1. This is indeed a fascinating article which brings up a question asked for decades: why do do some cancers cells spread while others just don’t? Previously the emphasis was on the cancer cell itself while now it has shifted to include the cellular neighborhood — the relationship of the rogue cell to those around it.

    Both the myeloma cell and others like the bone marrow stromal cells secrete cytokines that have profound effects on this interaction often resulting in a kind of “cellular dance” that benefits the cancer cell. Interfering with this interaction opens up new possibilities for fighting cancer.

    It’s also interesting that Dr Bissell’s idea was laughed at by the arrogant scientist visiting her lab in Berkeley. Having read a fair amount of medical history I can see how many great new ideas were initially dismissed as meaningless. Maybe this is due to “intellectual inertia” but it’s great that she is now vindicated in her original idea.

  2. This is basically the backbone of my research, that microenvironmental factors influence cell fates just as much as genetic abnormalities. In fact, there are a couple papers by Thea Tlsty at UCSF and Robert Weinberg that demonstrate that when you put cancer cells in a normal stromal environment, you can inhibit tumor progression, and when you put normal cells in a tumor stromal environment you can induce progression to tumorigenesis. This idea has been kicking around and gaining strength for some time, at least 10 years (actually the inklings that mechanical tension can influence cell proliferation have been around since the 1960’s or even earlier, depending on how stringent your definitions). The big problem was the rapid advances in genetics and the discovery of mutant genes that lead to cancer. While great discoveries, those findings led everyone and their grandmother to look exclusively at mutations from the 1980’s til recently. Anyone looking at microenvironments had a hard time selling the idea to NIH Study Sections and so had a hard time getting grant money. In the last 10 years some of us started wording it to make the microenvironment thing seem really novel, and things started to catch on.

    I could go on at greater length on all this, but I already did that in my dissertation 😉

  3. Rob

    How can I find your dissertation as I would love to read it. I am very interested in the microenvironment/cancer connection and need to learn more about it. Of course there are many papers out now but I would like to see your work. Thank you.


  4. Well, here’s the permalink for the dissertation:

    And here’s the Pubmed entry for the Mol Cell Biol paper mostly based on my work (long story as to why I’m not first author):

    I can send PDFs of both of these if you want, just need to know where to send them. Maybe Margaret can facilitate this?

    Also worth looking into are reviews by Donald Ingber – he’s been working on how mechanical tension influences cells since the late 1970’s.

  5. Hi Margaret

    A friend from a metastatic breast cancer forum told me about you, Dr Bharat Aggarwal’s research, and your AMAZING amount of research, and accompanying blog.

    I’m four years since dx of MBC – bone mets – on working on my theory/approach/trial&error of ‘reversing cancer’, and ever changing self-styled integrative approach.

    I feel as if I’ve discovered ‘Aladdins’ cave of treasure’ – I’ve spent days trawling through all your valuable research & information, your interpretations and your insights – treasure indeed!!

    God bless you Gorgeous – you’re Precious Stuff!!

    THANK YOU!!!! xxxGGC

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