Cell Cannibalism as Cancer Defense

A new study suggests that the mysterious process by which one cell consumes another may be triggered by cell division, potentially helping to fight tumor growth.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Jul 11, 2017

This time-lapse video captures the process of cell cannibalism, or entosis, in which one cell engulfs another.BABRAHAM INSTITUTEWatching the process of cell cannibalism using time-lapse microscopy, researchers have discovered new clues as to how and why cells may resort to eating one another. The team found that human epithelial cells, at the root of more than 80 percent of human cancers, can be triggered to cannibalize another cell following division, especially if the dividing cells, which normally remain rooted to their biological substrate, start to detach.

The results suggest that the cannibalistic process, also known as entosis, might slow cancerous growth, as “normal epithelia may engulf and kill aberrantly dividing neighbours,” the researchers write in the study, published today (July 11) in eLife.

“We set out to identify the proteins that control cell cannibalism in tumour cells, but by using time-lapse microscopy to watch this process in action, we stumbled across a completely unexpected new mechanism,” Jo Durgan of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K., says in a press release. “The link we’ve found to cell division is really intriguing from the perspective of cancer.”

“Entosis is a fascinating process that may play a role in normal physiology, as well as cancer,” adds the Babraham’s Oliver Florey. “After 100 years of observing ‘cell-in-cell’ structures, there is now an exciting push towards discoveries in both cell and cancer biology.”

See “It’s a Cell-Eat-Cell World