When you think of a cell, you probably picture it in action, continually going about its duties. But researchers believe that cells also have a restful side to their personalities; they can go into a state known as dormancy. Dormancy is most often observed in plants and animals but it can also be seen in some types of cells. It’s not clear why some cells enter into dormancy and others don’t. However, scientists have recently learned how this process works at the molecular level. In this blog we’ll explore the details of what researchers know about dormancy and how one type of cancer cell uses this trait to survive dangerous treatments and other stresses in the body.
What is dormancy?
As we discussed in the beginning of the article, a cell can be in a state of dormancy. What exactly does this state look like? Well, we can think of a cell as being in either an inactive or a “resting” state. However, under certain conditions some cells can be in a “dormant” state, meaning that they are able to survive for extended periods of time. This is a very useful trait in some situations if the cell needs to be on standby but is not actively required at that moment. Scientists aren’t sure why some cells enter into dormancy while others don’t, but there are some candidates. One hypothesis is based on the idea that some cells have a reset button that can be pressed to “wake them up” from dormancy. Many cells have a protein called RESET that can be activated. If a person’s blood type is A, for example, the protein RESET in a cell from an A blood type person will be “on”. It’s the same in a cell from a type O person but the RESET protein in a cell from a type A person is “off”. In other words, a cell from a type O person can be “activated” by a RESET protein from a type O person, but a cell from a type A person can’t.
How does a cell enter into dormancy?
Scientists don’t know exactly how a cell can enter into dormancy, but they have identified some potential triggers. One hypothesis is based on the idea that a dormant cell could be “stuck” in an activated state. To get unstuck, a dormant cell could need some sort of trigger. One trigger mechanism that is thought to be at work is that a stressed cell can enter into dormancy. This means that a cell is under some type of stress, such as an antibiotic that kills nearby cells, a tumor that is blocking blood flow to the cell, or some other type of damage. A cell might respond to this stress by entering into dormancy. In other words, a cell might be in a dormant state when it first comes into contact with a stressor but then it might decide to go into dormancy because of the damage it is under.
Dormant cells can survive for years
Scientists also don’t know how long a dormant cell can survive but they believe that it could be years or even decades. Researchers have found evidence of dormant human sperm in one sample that was 70 years old! That’s a long time for a sperm sample to survive in the human body. It’s not known why sperm cells would be able to survive this long, but researchers think it might be because sperm cells are not highly mobile, meaning that they don’t move around in the body too much. In addition, some types of bacteria such as the ones living in the gut, can also survive in a dormant state for many years. This is interesting because the gut is an environment that is often disturbed and damaged by antibiotics, toxins, viruses, and other things that cause damage to cells.
Stem cells and cancer cells use similar mechanisms to remain dormant
In addition to being able to enter into dormancy, some types of cells can also enter into a “telomere” state. Telomeres are added to the end of chromosomes in a stem cell or cancer cell, and they are thought to help the cell survive longer in a stressful environment. Researchers have found that both dormant and telomere cells seem to be able to use some of the same molecular mechanisms to “hide” from the cell’s environment. For example, both types of cells can be using proteins that modulate their transcription, the process of turning gene activity on and off.
How can we wake up a dormant cell?
Scientists have found some interesting ways to wake up dormant cells, including using certain types of proteins called “molecular chaperones”. These proteins can help a cell to return to an activated state. They can also be used to stop a cell from “shifting” into a dormant state.
As we discussed in this post, researchers have found that there are certain types of cells that can enter into a dormant state. These cells can survive for years and can be woken up using certain types of proteins. Researchers are not sure how or why these cells enter into dormancy but they are finding ways to awaken them. These findings could have a big impact on how we use cells in the future, and could help to extend the lives of patients by keeping them in a “dormant” state while they wait to be needed again.
Dr. Ronald Bissell is a retired surgeon, author of 6 books on Personal and Spiritual Growth, writer of numerous articles and facilitator of workshops. He has been giving talks to help people with life-threatening diseases for the past 10 years. After three years of chemotherapy he recently had a bone marrow transplant to treat Multiple Myeloma. His work now involves helping others with life-threatening diseases as well as teaching people how to live their best lives without fear or anxiety.