Similar to parasites, cancer cells depend on their hosts for sustenance, proliferation and reproduction, exploiting the hosts for energy and resources, and thereby impairing their health and fitness. Because of this lifestyle similarity, it is predicted that cancer cells could, like numerous parasitic organisms, evolve the capacity to manipulate the phenotype of their hosts to increase their own fitness. We claim that the extent of this phenomenon and its therapeutic implications are, however, underappreciated. Here, we review and discuss what can be regarded as cases of host manipulation in the context of cancer development and progression. We elaborate on how acknowledging the applicability of these principles can offer novel therapeutic and preventive strategies. The manipulation of host phenotype by cancer cells is one more reason to adopt a Darwinian approach in cancer research.
Cancer cell lineages able to manipulate phenotypic traits in their host in a way that favors their proliferation should be favored by oncogenic selection. However, the extent of this phenomenon remains underappreciated. We review this issue in the light of the parasitological concepts developed during the last few decades.