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New Data Suggest Extreme Genetic Diversity of Tumors May Impart Drug Resistance

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Beijing Institute of Genomics have undertaken one of the most extensive analyses of the genome of a single tumor and found far greater genetic diversity than anticipated. Such variation, they said, may enable even small tumors to resist treatment.

"With 100 million mutations, each capable of altering a protein in some way, there is a high probability that a significant minority of tumor cells will survive, even after aggressive treatment," Chung-I Wu, a University of Chicago researcher and senior author of the study, said in a statement. "In a setting with so much diversity, those cells could multiply to form new tumors, which would be resistant to standard treatments."

The findings, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, also call into question the widely held view that evolution at the cellular level is driven by Darwinian selection, revealing a level of rapid and extensive genetic diversity beyond what would be expected under this model.

In the study, the researchers focused on a single hepatocellular carcinoma tumor, roughly the size of a ping pong ball. They sampled 286 regions from a single slice of the tumor, studying each one with either whole-exome sequencing or genotyping under both the infinite-site and infinite-allele models of population genetics.

Based on their analyses, the team estimated more than 100 million coding region mutations in what they called an "unexceptional" tumor — more mutations than would ordinarily be expected by orders of magnitude, according to Wu.

This extreme genetic diversity, the study's authors wrote, implies evolution under the non-Darwinian mode, which is driven by random mutations largely unaffected by natural selection. It also raises the question of why there is so little apparent Darwinian selection in the tumor.

The scientists speculated that in solid tumors, cells remain together and do not migrate, "so that when an advantageous mutation indeed emerges, cells carrying it are competing mostly with themselves. These mutations may confer advantages in fighting for space or extracting nutrients, but they are stifled by their own advantages," they wrote. 

Beneficial mutations may emerge on occasion, but in solid tumors the cell populations are "so structured that selection may often be blunted," they stated. "The physiological effect has to be very strong to overcome those constraints." Cancer drugs could remove those constraints, loosening up a cell population and allowing competition to occur, the investigators added. 

Wu and his colleagues see the presence of so many mutations in a tumor as creating problems when it comes to treatment. "It almost guarantees that some cells will be resistant," study co-author and University of Chicago oncologist Daniel Catenacci said in the statement. "But it also suggests that aggressive treatment could push tumor cells into a more Darwinian mode."

Overall, the findings highlight the need to consider non-Darwinian evolution and the vast genetic diversity it can confer as factors when developing treatment strategies, even for small tumors, the researchers concluded.

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