“Free Rider Cancer Cells”

The article Game Theory Explains Social Interactions of Cancer Cells, discusses a recent discovery in the behavior of cancer cells, which embodies the free rider problem found in economics. Within cancerous tumors cells compete for space and nutrients, while also sharing the benefits of growth factors (molecules necessary for the survival of the cells). In the process of sharing these growth factors, the free rider problem emerges as a result of game theory strategy, that is, basing one’s decisions on the decisions that others make in order to make the best (most advantageous) choice. The free rider problem comes as a result of public goods (goods that, while being produced by particular individuals, are consumed publicly); individuals consume public goods that they pay no cost for, creating an “imbalance in the consumption of these goods between those that provide them and pay the production costs and those that do not pay but consume anyway”. This behavior comes as a result of game theoretic strategy, as it takes into account the way that some other individuals will pay the cost of certain goods when making a decision.

The fact that ‘free rider cancer cells’ reap the benefit of the growth factors that other cells make without the cost of making them themselves, allowed researchers to discover patterns in cell behavior through the use of computer simulation. Through the insight gained from the presence of the free rider problem within groups/networks of cancer cells (and the emergent behavioral patterns), doctors may be able to more efficiently combat the dynamics of cancer when attempting medical therapies targeted at tumor growth.