Tumor cells are a mosaic of different cell types

For the last decade or so, progressive cancer treatments involved taking samples of tumors, testing the cells to determine the genetic makeup, and then prescribing medicines targeted to specific mutations. There are many benefits to this approach, but it doesn’t always work.

It turns out that tumors aren’t uniform; they are mosaics of cells that can be genetically very different. A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a cell in one area may not be the same as a call in another area (a phenomenon called “intratumor heterogeneity”). So a treatment based on a sample from one area may not work for the whole tumor. Some tumor cells may be resistant to the drug so the cancer persists, or even grows.

In this British pilot study, cells from 9 different locations within a primary kidney tumor, and several metastatic tumors, were analyzed using next generation DNA sequencing. Only 34% of the 118 mutations identified were present in all the samples, and several of the major cancer genes were mutated in different ways in different locations. This turned traditional ideas about cancer cells being “clones” of a single, mutated cell on its head.

Previously, it was thought that a tumor develops when a single cell accumulates sufficient mutations over time that eventually lead to it dividing uncontrollably. Therefore if you could find the original mutation, and target treatment to that, then every cell would react to the treatment. But if the tumor is made up of a mosaic of cells, then they could all react differently to the drug. The researchers then created a phylogenetic “tree,” identifying which cells were more persistent, being in the trunk of the tree. They proposed that if those cells were receptive to a targeted medicine, the treatment might be more effective; if not, less so.

Although this study only involved four patients, the results provide a new way of thinking for researchers and clinicians. If we remove the presumption that all tumor cells are identical, we open the way for more creative thinking about how to tackle the problem.