Computational Cancer Biology: An Evolutionary Perspective

Niko Beerenwinkel, Chris D. Greenman, Jens Lagergren, Ruth Nussinov
2016 PLoS Computational Biology  
Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and represents one of the biggest biomedical research challenges of our time. Tumor progression is caused by somatic evolution of cell populations. Cancer cells expand because of the accumulation of selectively advantageous mutations, and expanding clones give rise to new cell subpopulations with increasingly higher somatic fitness (Fig 1) . In the 1970s, Nowell and others established this somatic evolutionary view of cancer [1]. Today, computational
more » ... biologists have the opportunity to take advantage of large-scale molecular profiling data in order to carve out the principles of tumor evolution and to elucidate how it manifests across cancer types. Analogous to other evolutionary studies, mathematical modeling will be key to the success of understanding the somatic evolution of cancer [2] . In general, cancer research involves a range of clinical, epidemiological, and molecular approaches, as well as mathematical and computational modeling. An early and very successful example of mathematical modeling was the work of Nordling [3] and of Armitage and Doll [4] . In the 1950s, long before cancer genome data was available, they analyzed cancer incidence data and postulated, based on the observed age-incidence curves, that cancer is a multistep process. In search of these rate-limiting events, cancer progression was then linked to the accumulation of genomic alterations. Since then, the evolutionary perspective on cancer has proven useful in many instances, and the mathematical theory of cancer evolution has been developed much further. However, little clinical benefit could be gained from this approach so far. Much of evolutionary modeling in general, and of cancer in particular, has remained conceptual or qualitative, either because of strong simplifications in the interest of mathematical tractability or lack of informative data. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies and their various applications have changed this situation fundamentally [5] . Today, cancer cells can be analyzed in great detail at the molecular level, and tumor cell populations can be sampled extensively. Driven by this technological revolution, large numbers of high-dimensional molecular profiles of tumors, and even of individual cancer cells, are collected by cancer genome consortia, as well as by many individual labs. Large catalogs of cancer genomes, epigenomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, and other molecular profiles are generated to assess variation among tumors from different patients (intertumor heterogeneity) as well as among individual cells of single tumors (intratumor heterogeneity). These data hold the promise not only of new cancer biology discoveries but also of progress in cancer diagnostics and treatment. Analyzing these complex data and interpreting them in the context of ongoing somatic evolution, disease progression, and treatment response is a major challenge, and the prospects to
doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004717 pmid:26845763 pmcid:PMC4742235 fatcat:zspm3avnovekflm5b5vmokgfjq