Skip to main content
Move the World.
cancer cells hibernate

Lead Image © National Cancer Institute / Adobe Stock

Bears, bats, and colorectal cancer have one thing in common: they hibernate. According to new research out of Canada's Princess Margaret Cancer Center, these cancer cells hibernate to evade cancer treatments.

"We never actually knew that cancer cells were like hibernating bears," Princess Margaret's Aaron Schimmer said in a press release.

"This study also tells us how to target these sleeping bears so they don't hibernate and wake up to come back later, unexpectedly. I think this will turn out to be an important cause of drug resistance, and will explain something we did not have a good understanding of previously."

A Nefarious Nap

Hibernation is marked by a greatly reduced metabolism and lowered body temperature, an energy-saving measure to help animals survive the winter.

The researchers, led by Catherine O'Brien, found that human colorectal cancer cells hibernate in much the same way. They slow their rapid cell division — basically cancer's hallmark characteristic — to survive a different kind of brutal environment: chemotherapy.

"There are examples of animals entering into a reversible and slow-dividing state to withstand harsh environments," O'Brien said in the release. "It appears that cancer cells have craftily co-opted this same state for their survival benefit."

The team's study, published in Cell, is the first to suggest that cancer cells hibernate by co-opting a natural process found in over 100 species of mammals, designed to protect embryos in challenging environments, from food scarcity to extreme temperatures. 

Human colorectal cancer cells were treated chemotherapy in vitro. In response, the cancer cells entered a sluggish state, slowing their usually prodigious division and requiring little nutrition. The team found that the cancer cells hibernate like this until the chemo is removed, and then return to their voracious state.

O'Brien was inspired by a talk given a few years ago about mouse embryos entering a state of hibernation to survive. They do so using a cellular mechanism called autophagy — cellular self-cannibalism. The cells breakdown their own proteins and pieces for energy, essentially surviving off of themselves — like fat bears — until the threat passes.

You can't hibernate like this, but evidently, humans still have the genes that make it possible. 

"The cancer cells are able to hijack this evolutionarily conserved survival strategy, even as it seems to be lost to humans," O'Brien said.

Catch 'em Sleeping

While protecting them from chemo, the period where cancer cells hibernate could also provide a target for treatment.

"This gives us a unique therapeutic opportunity," O'Brien said. 

"We never actually knew that cancer cells were like hibernating bears."

Aaron Schimmer

"We need to target cancer cells while they are in this slow-cycling, vulnerable state before they acquire the genetic mutations that drive drug-resistance. It is a new way to think about resistance to chemotherapy and how to overcome it."

When O'Brien inserted a miniscule molecule that stops autophagy into the colorectal cancer cells' petri dish, the cells didn't survive; the chemotherapy took them out without their hibernation mode to protect them. 

Adding autophagy-inhibitor drugs to chemo regimens could prevent hibernating cancer cells from surviving their nap to wreak havoc again — or evolving to become resistant to the chemo.

We just may be able to catch cancer sleeping.

Up Next

Future of Medicine
Using Ebola to Fight Brain Cancer
Using Ebola to Fight Brain Cancer
Future of Medicine
Using Ebola to Fight Brain Cancer
A lab-altered Ebola virus can hunt human brain cancer cells without killing healthy cells.
By Julia Sklar

A lab-altered Ebola virus can hunt human brain cancer cells without killing healthy cells.

Dispatches
23andMe Can (Finally) Tell You about Your Genetic Cancer Risk
23andMe Can (Finally) Tell You about Your Genetic Cancer Risk
Dispatches
23andMe Can (Finally) Tell You about Your Genetic Cancer Risk
23andMe has won the right to tell you what your genes say about you. It's a landmark legal achievement that could...

23andMe has won the right to tell you what your genes say about you. It's a landmark legal achievement that could help usher in a new age of personalized medicine.

Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
Dispatches
Glowing Cancer Cells Could Find Hidden Tumors (And Replace Mammograms)
A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

A new pill can make cancer cells glow under infrared light, and it could eliminate for mammograms.

Biology
Smart Vibrator Helps Scientists Study Female Orgasms
female orgasms
Biology
Smart Vibrator Helps Scientists Study Female Orgasms
The Lioness Sex Research Platform is helping scientists study female orgasms by providing anonymized data collected by a smart vibrator.

The Lioness Sex Research Platform is helping scientists study female orgasms by providing anonymized data collected by a smart vibrator.

Computer Science
Is Quantum Hacking the Biggest Threat to Encryption?
Quantum Hacking
Computer Science
Is Quantum Hacking the Biggest Threat to Encryption?
While some security experts prepare for quantum hacking, others argue that the EARN IT Act is the threat to encryption we need to address right now.

While some security experts prepare for quantum hacking, others argue that the EARN IT Act is the threat to encryption we need to address right now.

Building Community
The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
The
Watch Now
Building Community
The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
For some, not knowing their biological family can feel like a part of them is missing. The Search Squad is helping them for free.
Watch Now

These people are meeting biological relatives for the first time, thanks to a group of volunteers. The Search Squad group on Facebook has around 100 volunteer “search angels” who scour birth records and websites to find the birth relatives of adoptees. Many people who were adopted as children would like to meet their birth relatives, but it can often be an extremely expensive and time-consuming process. Search Squad, on...

Coded
Meet the Artist and Activist Who Wants You to Erase Your DNA
Meet the Artist and Activist Who Wants You to Erase Your DNA
Coded
Meet the Artist and Activist Who Wants You to Erase Your DNA
Heather Dewey-Hagborg wants to make sure people understand the hidden secrets in the DNA they leave behind...
By Michael O'Shea

Heather Dewey-Hagborg wants to make sure people understand the hidden secrets in the DNA they leave behind everywhere they go.

Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?
By James Poulos

If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?

Superhuman
Meet the Paralyzed Man Who Can Walk Again
Meet the Paralyzed Man Who Can Walk Again
Superhuman
Meet the Paralyzed Man Who Can Walk Again
Robert is paralyzed from the chest down. But now a robotic exoskeleton is giving him what he calls "a second chance...
By Mike Riggs

Robert is paralyzed from the chest down. But now a robotic exoskeleton is giving him what he calls "a second chance at life."