Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Symmetric vs asymmetric stem cell divisions: an adaptation against cancer?

Interesting paper on the effect of different division patterns on the accumulation of mutations in tissue cells. In particular, symmetric vs asymmetric divisions are compared, and it is found that symmetric cell divisions could delay the accumulation or carcinogenic mutations and thus the development of cancer. 

Symmetric vs asymmetric stem cell divisions: an adaptation against cancer?

Traditionally, it has been held that a central characteristic of stem cells is their ability to divide asymmetrically. Recent advances in inducible genetic labeling provided ample evidence that symmetric stem cell divisions play an important role in adult mammalian homeostasis. It is well understood that the two types of cell divisions differ in terms of the stem cells' flexibility to expand when needed. On the contrary, the implications of symmetric and asymmetric divisions for mutation accumulation are still poorly understood. In this paper we study a stochastic model of a renewing tissue, and address the optimization problem of tissue architecture in the context of mutant production. Specifically, we study the process of tumor suppressor gene inactivation which usually takes place as a sequence of two consecutive "hits", and which is one of the most common patterns in carcinogenesis. We compare and contrast symmetric and asymmetric (and mixed) stem cell divisions, and focus on the rate at which double-hit mutants are generated. It turns out that symmetrically-dividing cells generate such mutants at a rate which is significantly lower than that of asymmetrically-dividing cells. This result holds whether single-hit (intermediate) mutants are disadvantageous, neutral, or advantageous. It is also independent on whether the carcinogenic double-hit mutants are produced only among the stem cells or also among more differentiated cells. We argue that symmetric stem cell divisions in mammals could be an adaptation which helps delay the onset of cancers. We further investigate the question of the optimal fraction of stem cells in the tissue, and quantify the contribution of non-stem cells in mutant production. Our work provides a hypothesis to explain the observation that in mammalian cells, symmetric patterns of stem cell division seem to be very common.
Preprint: http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.0100