Understanding the biology of tumors

When people hear “tumor” they typically, and immediately, associate the word with cancer. However, one of the most important points to remember is that a tumor isn’t only made up of cancer cells, necessarily. There are nervous, immune and vascular system components, such as nerve cells, immune cells and blood vessels. All of these elements evolve together, while simultaneously co-evolving with the cancer cells.

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Dr. David Rowley

Cancer biology research at the Baylor College of Medicine NCI-designated Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center is centered on understanding mechanisms of cancer development and the implications for therapeutic intervention. Cancer cells and cancerous tissue have a lot to teach us, and our goal is to interpret those lessons to determine the most effective means of care.

One of the greatest things we’ve learned from the biology of tumors is the nature of plasticity, or its ability to morph into something else. We have to understand the complexity, heterogeneity and plasticity of tumors to understand how to best treat them.

In treating cancer, the treatment itself drives the tumor’s plasticity by putting continuous pressure on the cells, which the cells react and adapt to. This adaptability becomes predictable, and this is where we can begin to think about how we perceive the evolution of cancer.

We are fighting a deadly disease, by trying to identify the specific pressures to introduce into the cancer cell’s environment that will make the most impact in controlling adaptability and inhibiting cancer cell survival. The war against cancer is directed to inhibit cell survival within a tumor, however, the natural processes that promote cell survival are formidable.

-By Dr. David Rowley, professor of molecular and cellular biology and leader of the Cancer Biology Program within the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center

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