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Understanding tumor heterogeneity as functional compartments - superorganisms revisited

Thomas GP Grunewald123*, Saskia M Herbst4, Jürgen Heinze5 and Stefan Burdach12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pediatrics, Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technische Universität München, Kölner Platz 1, 80804 Munich, Germany

2 Laboratory of Functional Genomics and Transplantation Biology, Children's Cancer Research and Roman Herzog Comprehensive Cancer Center, Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technische Universität München, Kölner Platz 1, 80804 Munich, Germany

3 Medical Life Science and Technology Center, TUM Graduate School, Technische Universität München, Boltzmannstrasse 17, 85748 Garching, Germany

4 Institute of Human Genetics, University of Regensburg, Franz-Josef-Strauss-Allee 11, 93053 Regensburg, Germany

5 Biologie I, University of Regensburg, Universitätsstraße 31, 93040 Regensburg, Germany

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Journal of Translational Medicine 2011, 9:79  doi:10.1186/1479-5876-9-79

Published: 27 May 2011


Compelling evidence broadens our understanding of tumors as highly heterogeneous populations derived from one common progenitor. In this review we portray various stages of tumorigenesis, tumor progression, self-seeding and metastasis in analogy to the superorganisms of insect societies to exemplify the highly complex architecture of a neoplasm as a system of functional "castes."

Accordingly, we propose a model in which clonal expansion and cumulative acquisition of genetic alterations produce tumor compartments each equipped with distinct traits and thus distinct functions that cooperate to establish clinically apparent tumors. This functional compartment model also suggests mechanisms for the self-construction of tumor stem cell niches. Thus, thinking of a tumor as a superorganism will provide systemic insight into its functional compartmentalization and may even have clinical implications.