All living things--from dandelions to reindeer--evolve over time. Cancer cells are no exception, and are subject to the two overarching mechanisms described by Charles Darwin: chance mutation and natural selection. In new research, Carlo Maley, Ph.D., and his colleagues describe compulsive evolution and dramatic genetic diversity in cells belonging to one of the most treatment-resistant and lethal forms of blood cancer: acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The authors suggest the research may point to new paradigms in both the diagnosis and treatment of aggressive cancers, like AML. Dr. Maley is a researcher at Arizona State University's (ASU’s) Biodesign Institute and an Assistant Professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences. His work focuses on applying principles of evolutionary biology and ecology to the study of cancer. The group's latest findings [the group included collaborators from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCSF] were published online on April 1, 2015 in Science Translational Medicine. The article is titled “Single-Cell Genotyping Demonstrates Complex Clonal Diversity in Acute Myeloid Leukemia.” A tumor is a laboratory for evolutionary processes in which nature experiments with an immense repertoire of variants. Mutations that improve a cell's odds of survival are "selected for," while non-adaptive cells are weeded out in the evolutionary lottery. Genetic diversity therefore provides cancer cells with a library of possibilities, with some mutations conferring heightened resistance to attack by the body's immune system and others helping malignant cells foil treatments like chemotherapy. Generally speaking, the seriousness of a given cancer diagnosis may be linked with genetic diversity in cancerous cells.
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