Cancer development and progression: A non-adaptive process driven by genetic drift

Acta Biotheoretica 49 (2) (2001)
Abstract
The current mainstream in cancer research favours the idea that malignant tumour initiation is the result of a genetic mutation. Tumour development and progression is then explained as a sort of micro-evolutionary process, whereby an initial genetic alteration leads to abnormal proliferation of a single cell that leads to a population of clonally derived cells. It is widely claimed that tumour progression is driven by natural selection, based on the assumption that the initial tumour cells acquire some properties that endow such cells with a selective advantage over the normal cells from which the tumour cells are derived. The standard view assumes that the transformed bodily cell somehow acquires "responsiveness" to natural selection independently of the whole organism to which the cell belongs. Yet, it is never explained where such an acquired capacity to respond to natural selection by the individual bodily cell comes from. This situation poses many difficult questions that so far have been left unanswered. For example, there is no explanation why some cells belonging to an organised whole and as such having no independent capacity for survival, apparently become 'independent' entities, able to respond to selective pressures in an autonomous fashion and then to be evaluated by natural selection. Hereunder it is argued that such a qualitative change cannot be the consequence of specific genetic mutations. Moreover, it is shown that natural selection is unlikely to be acting within the organism during tumour development and progression and that tumour evolution is a random, non-adaptive process, driven by no fundamental biological principle. Thus, mutations in the so-called oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes observed in epithelial cancers (that constitute more than 90% of all cancers) are not the result of selection for better cellular growth or survival under restrictive conditions. Instead, here it is suggested that they are the consequence of genetic drift acting upon gene functions that become non-relevant, either for the individual or the species fitness, once the organism is past its reproductive prime and as such, they also become superfluous for cell survival in the short term. It is proposed that the origin of cancer is epigenetic and it is a consequence of the need for a continued turnover of the individuals that constitute a species
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