Spencer et al: Modeling Somatic Evolution in Tumorigenesis

S. Spencer, R. Gerety, K. Pienta and S. Forrest. Modeling Somatic Evolution in Tumourigenesis. PLoS Computational Biology, Vol 8, 2, pp 939-947.

Because the paper has been published in an open source journal it means that any reader, regardless of location or affiliation, will be able to download and print it.

I am spending the remaining of this month and most of February in Lyon working with Dr. Benjamin Ribba, from the University Hospital of the University of Lyon. The month will be busy so I am not sure of how much time will be left for posts in this blog but at least on my way here I had time to take a look at the paper mentioned at the beginning.

This paper, together with the one mentioned in a previous post from Anderson et al, tries to create a mathematical framework in which to study the phenotypical view of carcinogenesis presented by Hanahan and Weinberg in their paper. As in Anderson’s case, they use a Cellular Automata in which tumour cells occupy the discretised space and can grow and produce angiogenic factors in order to provision themselves with oxygen. The CA is let to evolve the initial population of cells in which mutations might alter the phenotype and acquire any of the six capabilities (ignoring antigrowth signals, production of paracrine growth signals, limitless replicative potential, evasion of apoptosis, angiogenesis and invasion/metastasis). Additionally a tumour cell might acquire genetical instability which significantly increases the mutation rate during mitosis. Cancer is assumed to take place whenever the cells grow over the natural boundaries of the tissue and claim 90% of the total space. This definition of cancer is, at least from my not so extensive experience, quite unconventional since it seems to allow no role to the phenotypes present in the tumour or the the shape of the tumour. At any rate, tumour growth is determined by the ability of the tumour cells of proliferating AND of surviving.

With this not too complicated system, the authors use several simulations to explore different tumourigenetic paths (or as they call them, pathways to cancer). This is how early mutations determine the likelihood of other mutations to appear successfully (the mutant cell has to survive and have other successful offspring) and how some mutations lead to early or later cancer (which I translate as the speed of the tumourigenesis).

So what do they find? They find that the mutator phenotype should play an important role in the case of early onset tumours but not necessarily in others that take more time to develop. They also find that not all the ‘pathways to cancer’ are equally probable and that is on its own something quite interesting. If in a particular tumour it was possible to see what genes are responsible for particular capabilities in the Hanahan&Weinberg description, then a genetic analysis of representative cells in the tumour could be used to see what further mutations would be the more likely to be successful and maybe design a therapy for it or try to alter the microenvironment to favour other competing mutations.

They also study the heterogeneity of the tumours which is an important feature when designing a therapy. They use a metric based on what it is done in evolutionary biology. The diversity is measured by aligning the different mutational paths of the different cells in the tumour and counting all the ones that have a different path. This seems to me a strange approach given that they treat tumour cells at the phenotypic level. I wonder if it would be better just to count the different phenotypes (defining phenotype in this case as a particular combination of H&W capabilities, regardless of what was the path to reach them)?

To conclude this review: it is clearly a theoretical model aimed to provide qualitative, not quantitative, results. It is probably complicated enough that biomathematicians might not feel very comfortable with it. The results are mainly simulations and it is unlikely that physicians could devise experiments to compare results with the model. Still I have to say that I like it, the quantitative results are interesting enough and the implementation of the word-model is very easy to follow.

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