Researchers in the UK have developed a computer model that forecasts the changes that occur within tumours as they develop.
The research by scientists at Queen Mary University of London aims to enable the prediction of the trajectory of tumour growth in patients, allowing clinicians to pre-empt disease course and tailor treatment regimens accordingly. The findings are published in journal Nature Genetics. Scientists say that the ability to forecast future offers a real opportunity for clinical benefit that is based on anticipatory action.
As tumours grow and become more advanced, different mutations – changes to the genetic code – occur in different cancer cells. Some of these changes may confer an advantage for the cell, making it more suited to survive in its environment. Following the principles of Darwin’s theory of Evolution, such cells will be favoured and able to replicate, creating more cells with the same mutation. In this way, different populations of cells with different mutations build up, creating tumours that are highly genetically diverse.
Although it is known that such changes take place as cancer develops, knowing exactly what changes occur and when has proven difficult as tumour samples are often only analysed in the laboratory after they are large enough to be detected in a patient. Therefore, the history of how tumours grow has remained invisible to researchers. The present study, majoritively funded by The Wellcome Trust, endeavoured to fill in this missing history.
By interpreting the genetic sequences of tumour cells, the computer system is able to read the ‘secret diary’ of mutations hidden in the genome, learning how the cancer has changed over time. Notably, the study revealed that mutations acquired by cells that drive the progression of cancer – known as driver mutations – allow the cells to grow up to 30 per cent faster in some cases than cells without the mutation.
The computer system used this genetic information with defined algorithms to predict future changes that may occur as the cancer continues to evolve.