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Tumors & Plants: What They Have in Common

Cancer cells can reshape their surrounding environments—just like invasive plants.

Illustration: LJ Davids

The tactics of cancer cells extend beyond rampant tumor growth. They also remodel their surroundings into a cancer-friendly neighborhood called the tumor microenvironment. This process is complicated, and scientists are striving to elucidate it. For noncancer biologists, a metaphor can help explain the phenomenon: Cancer’s microenvironment landscaping is reminiscent of the way invasive species of plants like English ivy and kudzu crowd out native flora.

At Cedars-Sinai, Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute investigators are looking for ways to reclaim the tumor microenvironment, transforming it into fertile ground for immunotherapy and targeted therapies, says Robert Figlin, MD, director of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the Steven Spielberg Family Chair in Hematology-Oncology. 

“Cancer cells only have one mission: live, grow, proliferate,” Figlin says. “If the environment they create can be readjusted in favor of destruction of the cancer cells, that gives us an advantage in helping patients.”

This strategy doesn’t directly attack the cancer cells, but it weakens their defenses and makes them more susceptible to treatments—a bit like changing growing conditions to discourage an invasive weed from further choking other plants.

Discoveries asked a handful of cancer and plant experts to extend the metaphor.

Tumors & Plants: What They Have in Common
Tumors & Plants: What They Have in Common
Tumors & Plants: What They Have in Common