Evolutionary dynamics of carcinogenesis and why targeted therapy does not work

Nat Rev Cancer. 2012 Jun 14;12(7):487-93. doi: 10.1038/nrc3298.


All malignant cancers, whether inherited or sporadic, are fundamentally governed by Darwinian dynamics. The process of carcinogenesis requires genetic instability and highly selective local microenvironments, the combination of which promotes somatic evolution. These microenvironmental forces, specifically hypoxia, acidosis and reactive oxygen species, are not only highly selective, but are also able to induce genetic instability. As a result, malignant cancers are dynamically evolving clades of cells living in distinct microhabitats that almost certainly ensure the emergence of therapy-resistant populations. Cytotoxic cancer therapies also impose intense evolutionary selection pressures on the surviving cells and thus increase the evolutionary rate. Importantly, the principles of Darwinian dynamics also embody fundamental principles that can illuminate strategies for the successful management of cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cellular Microenvironment / physiology
  • Clonal Evolution / physiology*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy*
  • Mutation / physiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*