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EJC News Focus – February 2014

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Tracking cancer evolution 'may reveal the key mutations'

The genetic diversity of cancers is a major challenge in the era of personalised medicine; UK researchers have found that two metastases of the same tumour may be so different that they resemble another patient's tumour more closely than they do each other. But studying the so-called evolution of cancers, and tracking mutations gained and lost, could lead to improved understanding. Charles Swanton (London, UK) and colleagues have found that the development of cancers fits the Darwinian model of a phylogenetic tree. The trunk represents the primary tumour, and the branches – which may differ from the trunk and from each other – are metastases. A phylogenetic tree with a long trunk and only a few branches represents a relatively homogenous cancer; one with a shorter trunk and many branches may be a highly heterogeneous, and therefore difficult-to-treat cancer.

Swanton's new study, TRACERx (Tracking Cancer Evolution through Therapy, Rx) aims to map out genetic changes in cancers over time. In this month's EJC News Focus, he tells Helen Saul that the aim is to identify the main drivers of evolutionary change within a tumour, and he explains how this knowledge could contribute to new approaches in research and treatment.