02:51am Monday 21 October 2019

From Geelong to Montpellier, researchers hope animals hold key to better human cancer outcomes

Senior Research Fellow Dr Beata Ujvari and a team from France’s Montpellier University are the first research team to examine how animals fought and prevented cancer and how their natural preventative tactics could translate to humans.

“Until now, the study of cancer in the human world has been undertaken in isolation to the animal world, which is unfortunate because links between these disciplines have the mutual potential to reveal new perspectives and lines of research,” Dr Ujvari said.

The recently completed research, published in Animal Behaviour, is the first step in the partnership between Deakin and Montpellier universities.

“So far what we have done is review data from all the available research across the globe on cancer in animals, which affects all creatures from insects to whales, and put forward new ideas and new theories, which we now want to prove or disprove in the laboratory and the wild,” Dr Ujvari said.

“Cancer in animals has mostly been studied in zoos and laboratory settings, which does not always represent what is really happening in the wild.

“We found there is not that much information available about how wild animals react to cancer, mostly because they die of parasite infections or being killed by predators before cancer can fully take effect.

“During our reviews we looked at how cancer might affect different organisms ranging from invertebrates (insects) to vertebrates and were interested in what kind of strategies different organisms use to avoid getting cancer, what do they do to treat it if they do get it and how do they decrease the risk of dying from it.

“We want to know, can the same strategies be applied to humans? But first we need to undertake more tests on animals, specifically to monitor the effect on cancer of different behaviours, such as sleeping longer when affected by cancer, in a controlled, laboratory environment.

Using easy-to-study fruit flies, the French team is now monitoring the behaviour of the organisms after they have been artificially exposed to cancer, looking at self-medicating behaviours such as sleep patterns and food choices.

Dr Ujvari, from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences and within its Centre for Integrative Ecology, said she would then repeat the French experiments at Deakin University in a vertebrate model – zebra fish – to investigate whether insects and vertebrates react and respond similarly to cancer. 

“If the responses of flies and fish are similar, then it implies that the same behavioural pattern most likely also apply to mammals, including humans, and similar strategies could be used when preventing and treating human cancer,” Dr Ujvari said.

“For example, studying the unusual feeding habits of animals could help us to identify the food items they use to self-medicate, which could also potentially contribute to the discovery of novel anti-cancer drugs. 

“Furthermore, understanding the link between sleep duration and cancer could result in preventing or treating cancers.

‘Human studies show that shift workers with frequent nightshifts have a generally higher risk of developing cancer. We also know that animals that sleep significantly more produce a hormone, which has anti-cancer properties.”

Dr Ujvari said this hormone could be developed into medication to offset the negative effect of sleepless nights in shift workers and to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

“And by removing habitants from highly polluted areas and increasing the awareness of cancers and risk factors, we could significantly reduce cancer prevalence across the globe,” she said.

“It’s so easy to ignore, but Mother Nature had millions of years to overcome the effect of cancer in wild animals, it is time we exploit that knowledge to treat and prevent cancer in humans.”

 The team’s findings from its research analysis of the strategies animals use to avoid and treat cancer included:

  • Animals use preventive behaviour to avoid getting cancer, such as not mating with partners affected by cancer. Pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria are major factors in initiating many, if not most cancers, and animals can reduce the risk of getting cancer by avoiding mating with infected individuals. They also choose habitats where they are less exposed to environmental factors potentially causing cancer (e.g. pollution);
  • Animals also self-medicate by consuming food containing anti-cancer compounds in them; and
  • They developed behaviours to reduce the risk of cancer for their offspring, such as by preferring breeding habitats that are less polluted/contaminated, therefore giving a better chance to their babies to survive and avoid getting cancer.

Dr Ujvari said the partnership between Deakin and Montpellier universities was one of the most exciting developments in the field and came about after meeting with the head of Montpellier’s Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Cancer Research, Professor Frederic Thomas, at a conference in 2013.


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134

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