Evolution and cancer

In a 3 part series Prof. Mel Greaves, provides an excellent introduction to the evolution of cancer. Cancer is increasingly being looked through the evolutionary lens and is quite important to be done so. Like antibiotic resistance, we have to realise that evolution of metastasis from a single tumour cell is a dynamic process shaped by various selection pressures.

What has evolution got to do with cancer?

Darwin’s branching tree of evolutionary phylogeny

The principles of evolutionary natural selection in cancer

Our understanding of cancer is being transformed by exploring clonal diversity, drug resistance, and causation within an evolutionary framework. The therapeutic resilience of advanced cancer is a consequence of its character as a complex, dynamic, and adaptive ecosystem engendering robustness, underpinned by genetic diversity and epigenetic plasticity. The risk of mutation-driven escape by self-renewing cells is intrinsic to multicellularity but is countered by multiple restraints, facilitating increasing complexity and longevity of species. But our own species has disrupted this historical narrative by rapidly escalating intrinsic risk. Evolutionary principles illuminate these challenges and provide new avenues to explore for more effective control.

Lifetime risk of cancer now approximates to 50% in Western societies. And, despite many advances, the outcome for patients with disseminated disease remains poor, with drug resistance the norm. An evolutionary perspective may provide a clearer understanding of how cancer clones develop robustness and why, for us as a species, risk is now off the scale. And, perhaps, of what we might best do to achieve more effective control.