• Open Access

SYNTHESIS: Cancer research meets evolutionary biology

Authors

  • John W. Pepper,

    1.  Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
    2.  The Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM, USA
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  • C. Scott Findlay,

    1.  Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
    2.  Institute of Environment, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
    3.  Program in Cancer Therapeutics, Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, Ottawa, ON, Canada
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  • Rees Kassen,

    1.  Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
    2.  Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
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  • Sabrina L. Spencer,

    1.  Computational and Systems Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
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  • Carlo C. Maley

    1.  Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA, USA
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John W. Pepper, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA. Tel.: 520-626-0440; fax: 520-621-9190; e-mail: jpepper1@email.arizona.edu

Abstract

There is increasing evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provides insights into the etiology and treatment of cancer. On a microscopic scale, neoplastic cells meet the conditions for evolution by Darwinian selection: cell reproduction with heritable variability that affects cell survival and replication. This suggests that, like other areas of biological and biomedical research, Darwinian theory can provide a general framework for understanding many aspects of cancer, including problems of great clinical importance. With the availability of raw molecular data increasing rapidly, this theory may provide guidance in translating data into understanding and progress. Several conceptual and analytical tools from evolutionary biology can be applied to cancer biology. Two clinical problems may benefit most from the application of Darwinian theory: neoplastic progression and acquired therapeutic resistance. The Darwinian theory of cancer has especially profound implications for drug development, both in terms of explaining past difficulties, and pointing the way toward new approaches. Because cancer involves complex evolutionary processes, research should incorporate both tractable (simplified) experimental systems, and also longitudinal observational studies of the evolutionary dynamics of cancer in laboratory animals and in human patients. Cancer biology will require new tools to control the evolution of neoplastic cells.

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