Autocrine signaling can explain the emergence of Allee effects in cancer cell populations
Journal article, 2022

In many human cancers, the rate of cell growth depends crucially on the size of the tumour cell population. Low, zero, or negative growth at low population densities is known as the Allee effect; this effect has been studied extensively in ecology, but so far lacks a good explanation in the cancer setting. Here, we formulate and analyze an individual-based model of cancer, in which cell division rates are increased by the local concentration of an autocrine growth factor produced by the cancer cells themselves. We show, analytically and by simulation, that autocrine signaling suffices to cause both strong and weak Allee effects. Whether low cell densities lead to negative (strong effect) or reduced (weak effect) growth rate depends directly on the ratio of cell death to proliferation, and indirectly on cellular dispersal. Our model is consistent with experimental observations from three patient-derived brain tumor cell lines grown at different densities. We propose that further studying and quantifying population-wide feedback, impacting cell growth, will be central for advancing our understanding of cancer dynamics and treatment, potentially exploiting Allee effects for therapy.


Philip Gerlee

University of Gothenburg

Chalmers, Mathematical Sciences, Applied Mathematics and Statistics

P. M. Altrock

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology

H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute

Adam A. Malik

Uppsala University

Cecilia Krona

Uppsala University

S. Nelander

Uppsala University

PLoS Computational Biology

1553-734X (ISSN) 1553-7358 (eISSN)

Vol. 18 3 e1009844

Subject Categories

Cell Biology

Cell and Molecular Biology

Cancer and Oncology





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