Dynamic altruistic cooperation within breast tumors

Muhammad Sufyan Bin Masroni, Kee Wah Lee, Victor Kwan Min Lee, Siok Bian Ng, Chao Teng Law, Kok Siong Poon, Bernett Teck Kwong Lee, Zhehao Liu, Yuen Peng Tan, Wee Ling Chng, Steven Tucker, Lynette Su Mien Ngo, George Wai Cheong Yip, Min En Nga, Susan Swee Shan Hue, Thomas Choudary Putti, Boon Huat Bay, Qingsong Lin, Lihan Zhou, Mikael HartmanTze Ping Loh, Manikandan Lakshmanan, Sook Yee Lee, Vinay Tergaonkar, Huiwen Chua, Adeline Voon Hui Lee, Eric Yew Meng Yeo, Mo Huang Li, Chan Fong Chang, Zizheng Kee, Karen Mei Ling Tan, Soo Yong Tan, Evelyn Siew Chuan Koay, Marco Archetti, Sai Mun Leong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Social behaviors such as altruism, where one self-sacrifices for collective benefits, critically influence an organism’s survival and responses to the environment. Such behaviors are widely exemplified in nature but have been underexplored in cancer cells which are conventionally seen as selfish competitive players. This multidisciplinary study explores altruism and its mechanism in breast cancer cells and its contribution to chemoresistance. Methods: MicroRNA profiling was performed on circulating tumor cells collected from the blood of treated breast cancer patients. Cancer cell lines ectopically expressing candidate miRNA were used in co-culture experiments and treated with docetaxel. Ecological parameters like relative survival and relative fitness were assessed using flow cytometry. Functional studies and characterization performed in vitro and in vivo include proliferation, iTRAQ-mass spectrometry, RNA sequencing, inhibition by small molecules and antibodies, siRNA knockdown, CRISPR/dCas9 inhibition and fluorescence imaging of promoter reporter-expressing cells. Mathematical modeling based on evolutionary game theory was performed to simulate spatial organization of cancer cells. Results: Opposing cancer processes underlie altruism: an oncogenic process involving secretion of IGFBP2 and CCL28 by the altruists to induce survival benefits in neighboring cells under taxane exposure, and a self-sacrificial tumor suppressive process impeding proliferation of altruists via cell cycle arrest. Both processes are regulated concurrently in the altruists by miR-125b, via differential NF-κB signaling specifically through IKKβ. Altruistic cells persist in the tumor despite their self-sacrifice, as they can regenerate epigenetically from non-altruists via a KLF2/PCAF-mediated mechanism. The altruists maintain a sparse spatial organization by inhibiting surrounding cells from adopting the altruistic fate via a lateral inhibition mechanism involving a GAB1-PI3K-AKT-miR-125b signaling circuit. Conclusions: Our data reveal molecular mechanisms underlying manifestation, persistence and spatial spread of cancer cell altruism. A minor population behave altruistically at a cost to itself producing a collective benefit for the tumor, suggesting tumors to be dynamic social systems governed by the same rules of cooperation in social organisms. Understanding cancer cell altruism may lead to more holistic models of tumor evolution and drug response, as well as therapeutic paradigms that account for social interactions. Cancer cells constitute tractable experimental models for fields beyond oncology, like evolutionary ecology and game theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number206
JournalMolecular Cancer
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research

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