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Scientific aims

The Centre for Evolution and Cancer has been set up at The Institute of Cancer Research under the leadership of Professor Mel Greaves to answer the question of why is cancer so common, and why is the disease so often resistant to treatment?

Edited Darwin tree

Charles Darwin's 1837 sketch of the tree of life. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Evolution by natural selection is the foundation law of biology. We shouldn’t be surprised therefore that it has great relevance to cancer.

The idea that cancer is fundamentally a process of somatic cell evolution was first advocated in the 1970s. Since then, the concept has been validated and greatly elaborated, highlighting the striking parallels with Darwinian evolution by natural selection in ecosystems.

Cancer genomics has provided detailed genetic descriptions and technologies for interrogating single cells and multi-regional small biopsies, revealing space-time genetic diversification of cancer cells and allowing us to infer clonal phylogenies, or evolutionary history. It’s a striking fact that every patient’s cancer has an individually unique and variegated clonal architecture and evolutionary trajectory.

This represents a paradigm shift with major implications for the way we think about the fundamental biology of cancer, the emergence of drug resistance and our attempt to control it. This also applies to evolutionary considerations of why humans are so vulnerable to cancer.

Research aims

Evolutionary biology isn’t a sub-topic of cancer sciences - it is a conceptual framework for everything in cancer. In recognition of this important development and the research opportunities it provides, The Institute of Cancer Research, London established a Centre for Evolution and Cancer in 2013.

Its overarching objective is to assemble a multidisciplinary team of investigators that will interrogate cancer afresh using evolutionary principles derived from ecology, enabled by state-of-the-art cellular, genomic and bioinformatic technologies. Our objectives include the following:

  • To provide an evolutionary logic for vulnerability to cancer in ageing humans and inherent variation in risk between individuals.
  • To optimise technologies for in depth analysis of clonal architectures and dynamics in cancer.
  • To integrate cancer genomics, clonal evolution with ecosystem and therapeutic selective pressures.
  • To develop quantitative evolutionary parameters of cancer clones and their microenvironments that are predictive of future progression of disease or the emergence of drug resistance.

Our long term aspiration is to help resolve the challenge of how best to thwart the evolutionary resilience of cancer in order to reduce the burden of cancer on society.

The Centre is supported by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust.

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