Taking Aim at Cancer’s Heart


Cancer is a unique paradox. At one level it’s as easy as can be to describe: damage to DNA (aka mutations) drives cells to behave abnormally — to make more of themselves when they shouldn’t.

But we all know that cancer’s fiendishly complicated — at least at the level of fine detail. Over the last decade or so the avalanche of sequenced DNA has revealed that every cell in a tumour is different: compare one cell to its neighbour and you’ll find variations in the individual units (the bases A, C, G & T) that make up the chains of DNA.

It’s a nightmare: every cancer is different so we need an infinite number of treatments to control or cure each one. Time to give up and retire to the pub.

Drivers and passengers

Not quite. DNA sequencing has also revealed that, amongst all the genetic mayhem, some mutations are more important than others. The movers and shakers have been dubbed ‘drivers’: those that come along for the ride are ‘passengers’. The hangers-on are heavily in the majority but, even so, several hundred drivers (i.e. mutated genes that give rise to abnormal proteins) have been identified. As it needs a group of drivers to work together to make a cancer we still have the problem that the number of critical combinations that can arise is essentially infinite.

One way of reducing the scale of the problem has been to look at what ‘driver’ proteins do in cells and to target those acting at key points to push cell proliferation beyond the normal.

Playing games

Just recently Giulio CaravagnaAndrea Sottoriva and colleagues at the Institute of Cancer Research, London and the University of Edinburgh have come up with a different approach. The idea goes back to the 1950s when a clever chap from Kansas by the name of Arthur Samuel came up with a program for IBM’s first commercial computer so that it could play draughts (checkers as our American friends call it) in its spare time. The program defined the patterns that could be formed by the pieces on the chequerboard so that, given enough of these, IBM 701 could indicate the optimal moves. Samuel called this machine learning, a precursor of the idea of artificial intelligence.

Perhaps the most famous moment in this saga came in 1997 when a later IBM computer, Deep Blue, beat the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Unsurprisingly, Kasparov was a bit miffed and accused IBM of cheating — to wit, getting a human to tell the machine what to do. Let’s hope that in the end he came to terms with the fact that Deep Blue could crank through 200 million positions per second and, however many games Grandmasters have in their heads, they can’t compete with that.

The cancer team realized that the mutations driving the evolution of cancer cells emerge as patterns in the sequence of DNA as a cell moves towards becoming independent of normal controls. Think of each cancer as a family tree of mutations, the key question being which branch leads to the most potent combination.

To pick out these patterns they applied a machine-learning approach known as transfer learning to the DNA sequences from a large number of cancers. They called this ‘repeated evolution in cancer’ — REVOLVER — aimed at picking out mutation patterns at the heart of cancer that foreshadow future genetic changes and can be used to predict how they will evolve.

Identifying patterns of mutation common to different tumours.

Samples are taken from different regions of a patient’s tumour (represented by the coloured dots). Their DNA sequences will have multiple variations that can mask underlying patterns of driver mutations present in some subgroups. The five trees show mutations picked up in those patients. REVOLVER uses transfer learning to screen the sequence data from many patients and pull out evolutionary trajectories shared by subgroups. The dotted red lines highlight common patterns that are represented in the lower strip. From Caravagna et al. 2018.

REVOLVER was applied to sequences from lung, breast, kidney and bowel cancers but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work with other tumours. The big attraction is that if these mini-sequence mutation patterns can be associated generally with how a given tumour develops they should help to inform treatment options and predict survival.

We have in the past referred to the ways cancers evolve as ‘genetic roulette’ — so perhaps it’s appropriate if game-playing computer programs turn out to be useful in teasing out behavioural clues.


Caravagna, G. et al. (2018). Detecting repeated cancer evolution from multi-region tumor sequencing data. Nature Methods 15, 707–714.