Evolutionary biology steps up to the fight against cancer

EVA 6 1Cancer organizations in developed nations predict that 2 in 5 people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime.  Worldwide, the number of deaths due to cancer surpasses that of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined (American Cancer Society, 2011).  In response to these ominous statistics, the fight against cancer has spread into branches of science that are not traditionally associated with cancer research.   The field of evolutionary biology is a key example.

How can evolutionary biology help combat cancer?  The journal Evolutionary Applications has devoted the entire January 2013 issue to showcasing the many ways that evolutionary approaches can improve the understanding, treatment and prevention of a number of different types of cancer.  The multi-authored opening paper states: “an accurate evolutionary approach should unite and explain, rather than replace” the many avenues of cancer research (Thomas et al 2013).

This is the first compilation of its kind, and was spearheaded by international scientists affiliated with the Darwinian Evolution of Cancer Consortium in France and with the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco. The issue is guest edited by Frederic Thomas, Michael Hochberg, Athena Aktipis, Carlo Maley and Ursula Hibner.

The general theme linking articles featured in the January issue of Evolutionary Applications is that improvements to our understanding of cancer can be gained by considering cancer as a complex ecosystem. Using the analogy of a forest, the fate of a forest depends both on the individual characteristics of trees, as well as the interactions of each tree with its biotic and abiotic environment.  Similarly, tumors can be comprised of cells that are genetically and physically distinct, and the fate of tumors depends both on cell-to-cell interactions within the tumor, as well as on the interactions of the whole tumor with the highly complicated environment of the human body.  

Evolutionary questions addressed in the issue include: Why do we get cancer?  How do evolutionary principles like natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift, work in a cancer ecosystem? How can we use evolutionary theory to minimize the rate of cancers worldwide?  Many novel results are reported in the published articles, including how blood vessels affect the internal environment of a tumor (Alfarouk et al. 2013), and how certain characteristics of tumors can help explain patterns of metastasis (Daoust et al. 2013).

Papers from the Evolution and Cancer Special Issue are all freely available on the Evolutionary Applications website: www.evolutionaryapplications.org

Michelle Tseng, Managing and Founding Editor


 Alfarouk, K. O., Ibrahim, M. E., Gatenby, R. A. and Brown, J. S. (2012), Riparian ecosystems in human cancers. Evolutionary Applications. doi: 10.1111/eva.12015

American Cancer Society. Global Cancer Facts & Figures 2nd Edition. Atlanta: American Cancer Society 2011.

 Daoust, S. P., Fahrig, L., Martin, A. E. and Thomas, F. (2012), From forest and agro-ecosystems to the microecosystems of the human body: what can landscape ecology tell us about tumor growth, metastasis, and treatment options?. Evolutionary Applications. doi: 10.1111/eva.12031

 Thomas, F., Fisher, D., Fort, P., Marie, J.-P., Daoust, S., Roche, B., Grunau, C., Cosseau, C., Mitta, G., Baghdiguian, S., Rousset, F., Lassus, P., Assenat, E., Grégoire, D., Missé, D., Lorz, A., Billy, F., Vainchenker, W., Delhommeau, F., Koscielny, S., Itzykson, R., Tang, R., Fava, F., Ballesta, A., Lepoutre, T., Krasinska, L., Dulic, V., Raynaud, P., Blache, P., Quittau-Prevostel, C., Vignal, E., Trauchessec, H., Perthame, B., Clairambault, J., Volpert, V., Solary, E., Hibner, U. and Hochberg, M. E. (2012), Applying ecological and evolutionary theory to cancer: a long and winding road. Evolutionary Applications. doi: 10.1111/eva.12021