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Could Darwin help us outsmart cancer?


To celebrate Darwin Day, we invited Professor Andrew Read from Pennsylvania State University to talk to us about why cancer researchers should care about the founder of evolutionary biology, and why his 150-year old findings might just be the most important weapon we have to defeat cancer.

Posted on 12 February, 2018 by Dr Claire Hastings

Charles Darwin statue at Natural History Museum, London

Charles Darwin statue at the National History Museum, London.

The 12th of February marks a celebration of the life and works of Charles Darwin – the eminent scientist and observer of finches whose work On the Origin of Species introduced the world to a concept that would change biological research forever.

Darwin’s big idea was that all life has the ability to adapt, or evolve, to the situation it finds itself in. And whether ‘it’ is a whale, a worm, a plant or just a single cell – the best adapted to their environment will thrive.

One of the most important consequences of this ability to evolve is strongly felt in modern medicine.

The threat of drug resistance

Within the last century people have discovered drugs to treat all sorts of different diseases. But in almost all cases we see the diseases developing resistance to the treatments we throw at them.

Today, bacteria are evolving resistance to antibiotics faster than we can make new ones, posing a huge threat to even minor hospital procedures. A harrowing thought.

The threat posed by cancer’s ability to evolve is equally as stark. Cancer begins with our own cells evolving to switch off important controls, grow too fast and form tumours. When we treat these tumours, if there’s even one or two cells left behind, they can come back with a vengeance. There are very few cancer drugs that offer long term control or cure.

So what do we do to overcome evolving drug resistance?

Now we have a much better understanding of how cancer can evolve to become resistant, we can use Darwin’s principles to try to outsmart cancer.

Applying Darwin's principles

In 2016, the ICR launched an ambitious research strategy to answer that very question. Our researchers are looking at different ways to overcome cancer evolution, including how we can get better at predicting how cancer will evolve, what combinations of drugs we can use to block cancer’s escape routes, create new drugs that hit multiple targets at once, and directing a patient’s immune system to evolve in response to changes in the cancer.

Many of these approaches look at what we can do now with the technology and infrastructure currently available to us. But we also need to start looking to the future… and a bit more outside the box.

The ICR's Centre for Evolution and Cancer is led by Professor Mel Greaves and aims to apply Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection to our understanding of why we develop cancer and why it is so difficult to treat.

Find out more

To celebrate Darwin Day, we invited Professor Andrew Read, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University, to come and talk to us about his work and what insights cancer researchers can gain from it.

Professor Read is an international authority on the problem of how pathogens evolve resistance, looking at the adaptability of a diverse range of infections – including malaria, hospital-acquired disease and even chicken viruses.

Drug resistance is key

Professor Read told me:

“The process of drug resistance is the same, no matter if we’re talking about insects and pesticides, bacteria and antibiotics or cancer and its many treatments. It centres on the ability to adapt to what we throw at them – on Darwinian evolution.

“Cancer is one of the clearest examples of an evolving disease. No one dies of drug-sensitive cancer. It’s the drug resistant cells that kill you.

“The drug sensitive cells are what’s key. They are both our friend and foe. They’re our friend while they are present because they out-grow and suppress drug resistant cells. But they also have the potential to become drug resistant cells.

“My talk will focus around this fundamental dilemma and its implications for treatment.”

It doesn’t sound likely that there’s an easy way to prevent or block cancer evolution. But with some of the best minds working on it, and with a little help from Darwin, we might yet outsmart the disease, or dare I say it, find a cure?


Mel Greaves evolution Centre for Evolution and Cancer Andrew Read Darwin Day
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