Human Cancer Cells Signal Their Competitive Fitness Through MYC Activity

Sci Rep. 2017 Oct 3;7(1):12568. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-13002-1.


MYC-mediated cell competition is a cell-cell interaction mechanism known to play an evolutionary role during development from Drosophila to mammals. Cells expressing low levels of MYC, called losers, are committed to die by nearby cells with high MYC activity, called winners, that overproliferate to compensate for cell loss, so that the fittest cells be selected for organ formation. Given MYC's consolidated role in oncogenesis, cell competition is supposed to be relevant to cancer, but its significance in human malignant contexts is largely uncharacterised. Here we show stereotypical patterns of MYC-mediated cell competition in human cancers: MYC-upregulating cells and apoptotic cells were indeed repeatedly found at the tumour-stroma interface and within the tumour parenchyma. Cell death amount in the stromal compartment and MYC protein level in the tumour were highly correlated regardless of tumour type and stage. Moreover, we show that MYC modulation in heterotypic co-cultures of human cancer cells is sufficient as to subvert their competitive state, regardless of genetic heterogeneity. Altogether, our findings suggest that the innate role of MYC-mediated cell competition in development is conserved in human cancer, with malignant cells using MYC activity to colonise the organ at the expense of less performant neighbours.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogenesis / genetics*
  • Cell Communication / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Genetic Heterogeneity*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-myc / genetics*


  • MYC protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-myc