They used a chemotherapy-induced senescent model to study this phenomenon.They first extracted tissues found in the lining of body cavities from mice models and exposed half of these tissues to chemotherapeutics that are used to treat cancer, pushing them to senescence — a state in which the cells stop replicating but don’t die.
“What you might call in a body ageing, in a cell or tissue you would call it senescence,” explains Ramray Bhat, associate professor, IISc department of developmental biology and genetics (DBG) and corresponding author of the study published in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences.
The team then exposed both young and aged mouse tissues and human tissue-like cell sheets to ovarian cancer cells. They used time-lapse imaging to tag the normal and cancer cells with different fluorescent markers so that they could be studied under a microscope for extended periods of time.
“It’s slightly harder to image tissues when compared to cell lines as the latter has only one particular cell type growing,” said Bharat Thapa, first author and former biology UG student at IISc, now pursuing a PhD at Vanderbilt University, USA.
What they found was that the cancer cells chose to settle down more on the aged tissues; moreover, they settled closer to the aged normal cells in the cell sheets.
“To figure out what was drawing cancer cells to aged cells, researchers first wondered if they were being attracted to signalling molecules that were being secreted by aged cells and diffusing over long distances. They built computer models to explore interactions between cancer cells and aged cells,” IISc said.
What they found was surprising: It wasn’t diffusing molecules that were luring cancer cells. It was proteins secreted by aged cells that settle down as extracellular matrix (ECM) – the base on which the cells adhere and grow – that were attracting cancer cells.
The team also carried out experiments on human cell lines to replicate predictions of computer simulations. They noticed that cancer cells stuck strongly to ECM around aged cells, and eventually cleared aged cells away. They also noticed that aged ECM had higher levels of proteins such as fibronectin, laminin and hyaluronan compared to young cells’ ECM, which allowed cancer cells to bind more strongly.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that this could potentially be one of the reasons why aged populations typically tend to have worse outcomes in cancer than younger populations. “The fact is that chemotherapy also induces senescence, and that senescence can make things worse. “Appropriate use of chemotherapy could be very important in getting good outcomes in ovarian cancer,” says Bhat.
“One way forward, adds Bhat, could be to focus on finding probes that can identify some of these matrix proteins, which can help predict where the cancer cells would get deposited in the tissues. Thapa also hopes that future studies will build a strong case for using senolytics – drugs that kill senescent cells – as a combination therapy with chemotherapeutics to tackle cancer progression,” IISc added.