Defining Cancer Subpopulations by Adaptive Strategies Rather Than Molecular Properties Provides Novel Insights into Intratumoral Evolution

Cancer Res. 2017 May 1;77(9):2242-2254. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-16-2844. Epub 2017 Mar 1.


Ongoing intratumoral evolution is apparent in molecular variations among cancer cells from different regions of the same tumor, but genetic data alone provide little insight into environmental selection forces and cellular phenotypic adaptations that govern the underlying Darwinian dynamics. In three spontaneous murine cancers (prostate cancers in TRAMP and PTEN mice, pancreatic cancer in KPC mice), we identified two subpopulations with distinct niche construction adaptive strategies that remained stable in culture: (i) invasive cells that produce an acidic environment via upregulated aerobic glycolysis; and (ii) noninvasive cells that were angiogenic and metabolically near-normal. Darwinian interactions of these subpopulations were investigated in TRAMP prostate cancers. Computer simulations demonstrated invasive, acid-producing (C2) cells maintain a fitness advantage over noninvasive, angiogenic (C3) cells by promoting invasion and reducing efficacy of immune response. Immunohistochemical analysis of untreated tumors confirmed that C2 cells were invariably more abundant than C3 cells. However, the C2 adaptive strategy phenotype incurred a significant cost due to inefficient energy production (i.e., aerobic glycolysis) and depletion of resources for adaptations to an acidic environment. Mathematical model simulations predicted that small perturbations of the microenvironmental extracellular pH (pHe) could invert the cost/benefit ratio of the C2 strategy and select for C3 cells. In vivo, 200 mmol/L NaHCO3 added to the drinking water of 4-week-old TRAMP mice increased the intraprostatic pHe by 0.2 units and promoted proliferation of noninvasive C3 cells, which remained confined within the ducts so that primary cancer did not develop. A 0.2 pHe increase in established tumors increased the fraction of C3 cells and signficantly diminished growth of primary and metastatic tumors. In an experimental tumor construct, MCF7 and MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells were coinjected into the mammary fat pad of SCID mice. C2-like MDA-MB-231 cells dominated in untreated animals, but C3-like MCF7 cells were selected and tumor growth slowed when intratumoral pHe was increased. Overall, our data support the use of mathematical modeling of intratumoral Darwinian interactions of environmental selection forces and cancer cell adaptive strategies. These models allow the tumor to be steered into a less invasive pathway through the application of small but selective biological force. Cancer Res; 77(9); 2242-54. ©2017 AACR.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Lineage / genetics
  • Cell Proliferation / genetics
  • Computer Simulation
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Models, Theoretical
  • PTEN Phosphohydrolase / genetics
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor, Member 25 / genetics
  • Selection, Genetic / genetics*
  • Tumor Microenvironment
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor, Member 25
  • Tnfrsf25 protein, mouse
  • PTEN Phosphohydrolase
  • Pten protein, mouse