The emergence of drug-resistant cells, most of which have a mutated TP53 gene, prevents curative treatment in most advanced and common metastatic cancers of adults. Yet, a few, rarer malignancies, all of which are TP53 wild type, have high cure rates. In this Perspective, we discuss how common features of curable cancers offer insights into the evolutionary and developmental determinants of drug resistance. Acquired loss of TP53 protein function is the most common genetic change in cancer. This probably reflects positive selection in the context of strong ecosystem pressures including microenvironmental hypoxia. Loss of TP53's functions results in multiple fitness benefits and enhanced evolvability of cancer cells. TP53-null cells survive apoptosis, and tolerate potent oncogenic signalling, DNA damage and genetic instability. In addition, critically, they provide an expanded pool of self-renewing, or stem, cells, the primary units of evolutionary selection in cancer, making subsequent adaptation to therapeutic challenge by drug resistance highly probable. The exceptional malignancies that are curable, including the common genetic subtype of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and testicular seminoma, differ from the common adult cancers in originating prenatally from embryonic or fetal cells that are developmentally primed for TP53-dependent apoptosis. Plus, they have other genetic and phenotypic features that enable dissemination without exposure to selective pressures for TP53 loss, retaining their intrinsic drug hypersensitivity.
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