The Francis Crick Institute
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Cancer evolution: Darwin and beyond.

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journal contribution
posted on 2021-09-15, 11:43 authored by Roberto Vendramin, Kevin Litchfield, Charles Swanton
Clinical and laboratory studies over recent decades have established branched evolution as a feature of cancer. However, while grounded in somatic selection, several lines of evidence suggest a Darwinian model alone is insufficient to fully explain cancer evolution. First, the role of macroevolutionary events in tumour initiation and progression contradicts Darwin's central thesis of gradualism. Whole-genome doubling, chromosomal chromoplexy and chromothripsis represent examples of single catastrophic events which can drive tumour evolution. Second, neutral evolution can play a role in some tumours, indicating that selection is not always driving evolution. Third, increasing appreciation of the role of the ageing soma has led to recent generalised theories of age-dependent carcinogenesis. Here, we review these concepts and others, which collectively argue for a model of cancer evolution which extends beyond Darwin. We also highlight clinical opportunities which can be grasped through targeting cancer vulnerabilities arising from non-Darwinian patterns of evolution.


Crick (Grant ID: 10169, Grant title: Swanton FC001169) Novo Nordisk UK Research Foundation (Grant ID: NNF15OC0016584, Grant title: NovoNordisk Foundation 16584) European Research Council (Grant ID: 835297 - PROTEUS, Grant title: ERC 835297 - PROTEUS)