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Evolution Research Could Revolutionize Cancer Therapy

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Evolution Research Could Revolutionize Cancer Therapy

Evolutionary studies indicate that the genetic changes enabling a cancer to develop arise shockingly early within the primary tumor. This discovery points to a promising new approach to therapy

Scientific American,

5 min read
3 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Metastases arise from primary tumors in a more complicated fashion than cancer researchers assumed.

Editorial Rating



  • Scientific
  • Eye Opening
  • Visionary


The diversity of genetic sequences within an individual tumor has been a bane to oncologists, making it difficult to know which mutations are important and should be targeted. To evolutionary biologist Jeffrey Townsend and coworkers at the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale School of Medicine, this diversity of sequences held valuable information. Through sequence analysis they found that metastases do not arise late in tumor development, as had been assumed previously. Rather they can arise randomly from a primary tumor. Townsend’s article will captivate readers curious about how looking at data through a new lens can yield clinically relevant results.


Evolutionary trees reveal the relationships between organisms, or cells, by tracking the divergence between their genetic sequences.

Molecular evolutionary trees compare DNA sequences to see how they diverge from each other. Evolutionary biologists usually employ such trees to track how organisms are related to one another. How humans are related to other primates, for instance, how primates are related to other mammals and how mammals are related to other animals. Usually, evolutionary trees rely on DNA from organisms that are not extinct and try to extrapolate back to an ancient and unknown common ancestor.

Now that technology and computing power enables scientists to sequence the DNA of many cells, Townsend and coworkers had the insight to apply this evolutionary paradigm to primary tumor cells and secondary...

About the Author

Jeffrey P. Townsend is an associate professor of biostatistics at the Yale School of Public Health and of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University.

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