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Promise and Progress - Game Theory and Cancer

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Game Theory and Cancer

Date: January 15, 2015


Interface Focus, June 20, 2014

Game theory is a mathematical study of strategic decision-making that has been widely used to predict conflict and cooperation among people and nations.  Now, prostate cancer scientist Kenneth Pienta, M.D., and Ardeshir Kianercy, Ph.D., a researcher in his lab, are using it to forecast cell-to-cell interactions in cancer.

“Tumors contain a variety of cells shifting between cooperative-like and competitive-like states,” says Kianercy.  “To study tumor cells in isolation is not enough.  It makes sense to study their behavior and relationship with other cells and how they co-evolve together.”

Pienta and Kianercy used mathematical and computer tools to set up game parameters based on biological interactions between two types of tumor cells to explore how they engage in different types of energy metabolism.  Applying their game theory calculations the researchers uncovered critical transitions when a tumor suddenly switches its energy metabolic strategy. 

This switch may foretell progression and spread of cancer, says Pienta, the Donald S. Coffey Professor of Urology and director of the Brady Urological Institute’s Prostate Cancer Program.  He thinks tumors may be particularly vulnerable during this strategy-switching period, and it could be an ideal time to use clinical interventions to disrupt the cell-to-cell cooperation that permits cancer cell growth and spread.  “If cells become non-cooperative, they are most likely to stay in that state, and the tumor may become more vulnerable to anticancer therapies,” says Kianercy.

Pienta isn’t sure if this type of energy metabolic cooperation occurs in all tumors, but the model gives scientists a new way to study how cancers may progress.  He says, “The reality is that we still can’t cure cancer that has spread from its primary organ, and game theory adds to our efforts to attack the problem.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (U54 CA143803).

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