First steps in experimental cancer evolution
Evolutionary processes play a central role in the development, progression and response to treatment of cancers. The current challenge facing researchers is to harness evolutionary theory to further our understanding of the clinical progression of cancers. Central to this endeavour will be the development of experimental systems and approaches by which theories of cancer evolution can be effectively tested. We argue here that the experimental evolution approach – whereby evolution is observed in real time and which has typically employed microorganisms – can be usefully applied to cancer. This approach allows us to disentangle the ecological causes of natural selection, identify the genetic basis of evolutionary changes and determine their repeatability. Cell cultures used in cancer research share many of the desirable traits that make microorganisms ideal for studying evolution. As such, experimental cancer evolution is feasible and likely to give great insight into the selective pressures driving the evolution of clinically destructive cancer traits. We highlight three areas of evolutionary theory with importance to cancer biology that are amenable to experimental evolution: drug resistance, social evolution and resource competition. Understanding the diversity, persistence and evolution of cancers is vital for treatment and drug development, and an experimental evolution approach could provide strategic directions and focus for future research.