TAMPA, Fla.—According to researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center, cancer is subject to the evolutionary processes laid out by Charles Darwin in his concept of natural selection. Natural selection was the process identified by Darwin by which nature selects certain physical attributes, or phenotypes, to pass on to offspring to better “fit" the organism to the environment.
As applied to cancer, natural selection, a key principle of modern biology, suggests that malignancies in distinct “microhabitats" promote the evolution of resistance to therapies. However, these same evolutionary principles of natural selection can be applied to successfully manage cancer, according to Moffitt researchers who published an opinion piece in a recent issue of Nature Reviews Cancer.
“Understanding cancer as a disease starts with identifying crucial environmental forces and corresponding adaptive cellular strategies," said Robert A. Gatenby, MD, chair of the Department of Diagnostic Imaging. “Cancer is driven by environmental selection forces that interact with individual cellular adaptive strategies."
Cancer cell development, like any natural selection (or Darwinian) process, is governed by environmental selection forces and cellular adaptive strategies, the authors wrote. Investigating cancer and its proliferation through genetic changes and ignoring the adaptive landscape is most likely futile. Under “selective pressure" of chemotherapy, in this case the “adaptive landscape," resistant populations of cancer cells invariably evolve.
The authors say that tumors can be thought of as “continents" populated by multiple cellular species that adapt to regional variations in environmental selection forces. Their strategy in offering this metaphor, they wrote, is to “integrate microenvironmental factors at work during cancer’s progression" into the model of the evolution of cancer and, particularly, the evolution of drug resistance.