Cancer is more than just a disease of the genes or a disease of unregulated proliferation. It is a speciation event where a cell lineage of the person goes from serving the person to becoming its own novel, single-celled pathogen. As such, the person becomes this new species’ planet, the tumor its ecosystem, and its subsequent progression often catastrophic for the patient. With this novel perspective, the principles of ecology and evolution become as applicable to the disease spread of cancer through the patient’s body as they are to the spread of invasive species; and as applicable to the rapid evolution of therapy resistance in cancer as they are to the evolution of antibiotic and pesticide resistance, rapid evolution in fish and other species subjected to harvesting or anthropogenic change to the environment. Thus, it turns out that studies of cancer biology and the ecology and evolution of animal and plant populations are not far removed from each other. They have much to teach each other.
A recent collection of papers in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution explores a journey under the title From Ecology to Cancer Biology and Back Again. Two papers from University of South Florida (USF) researchers demonstrate the emerging and strong collaborations between USF, Moffitt Cancer Center, Maastricht University, and Delft University of Technology (both located in the Netherlands); all directed at applying ecology and evolution to solve problems in cancer and in nature at a large.
The first paper, The Genomic Processes of Biological Invasions: From Invasive Species to Cancer Metastases and Back Again1, demonstrates the parallels between cancer progression and biological invasions. The transport, establishment, spread, and subsequent adaptive evolution of invasive species pose huge challenges for conservation, agriculture, forestry and the maintenance of biodiversity. In Florida alone, pythons, tree frogs, walking catfish, and innumerable invasive plant species are all examples of such.
For a cancer patient, metastases – the invasion of new organs and sites in the body by the cancer – alters the chances of cure from very good to nearly impossible. “Genomic processes provide the foundation for these events, and our team has highlighted that the invading species or the metastatic cancer cell is not a random subset of the source population, nor do the invaders remain evolutionarily static. They evolve and become worse through natural selection,” explains Dr. Christina Richards, associate professor of integrative biology at USF, and corresponding author of the study. “This paper suggests ways the two fields of invasive species ecology and cancer biology can join forces to understand the underlying genomic signatures and changes to the mutual benefit of both fields.”
Dr. Richards’ ongoing project on the genomics of invasive plants was among the research highlighted in this review. The first author, Fargam Neinavaie is a doctoral student in Integrative Biology at USF under the mentorship of co-author Dr. Andrew Kramer. Co-author Arig Ibrahim-Hashim, M.D., is both a researcher (Moffitt Cancer Center) and doctoral student in Integrative Biology under the mentorship of Dr. Christina Richards and co-author Dr. Joel Brown (Moffitt cancer Center and USF).
The second paper, Evolutionary Dynamics of Treatment-induced Resistance in Cancer Informs Understanding of Rapid Evolution in Natural Systems2 explores how principles of evolutionary game theory connect disciplines such as fisheries, pest management and cancer treatment. Humans act as selective agents that influence evolution of nonhuman populations by altering their environment. For example, harvesting fish drives their body sizes. The emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and pesticide resistance in agricultural settings pose major health and economic threats. For cancer, it is the evolution of drug resistance and the collapse of treatment efficacy that results in nearly all cancer deaths.
“This second paper shows how the success of management and treatment strategies depend heavily on the speed at which the managed species respond,” continued Dr. Richards. “The best strategy for the manager or physician requires anticipating and steering the ecology and evolution of the pest, harvested resource, or cancer cells.”
The first author, Mariyah Pressley, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Engineering, USF College of Engineering, Moffitt Cancer Center. She is mentored by co-author Joel Brown. Co-author Dr. Monica Salvioli is a post-doctoral fellow mentored by corresponding author Dr. Katerina Staňková (Associate Professor in Dynamic Game Theory, Department of Engineering Systems and Services, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands). Co-author Dr. David Lewis is a faculty member of Integrative Biology at USF.
The integrated multidisciplinary teams that contributed these two papers span continents, whole fields of biology and cancer, and career stages. “Importantly for women in STEM, women comprised the first and senior authors of both teams, and these papers represent existing and growing links between USF, Moffitt and Maastricht/Delft that is advancing the opportunities to use ecological and evolutionary principles to define, study and treat cancer. We see this as a two-way street: using cancer as a unique opportunity to advance concepts and theories from ecology, evolution and genomics, as well as contributing to our understanding of these diseases.”
1 F. Neinavaie, A. Ibrahim-Hashim, A.M. Kramer, J.S. Brown and C.L. Richards; doi: 10.3389/fevo.2021.681100
2 M. Pressley, M. Salvioli, D.B. Lewis, C.L. Richards, J.S. Brown and K. Staňková; doi: 10.3389/fevo.2021.681121