In 1971, US president Richard Nixon declared the now-famous “war on cancer”, predicting victory within five years. More than 40 years later, cancer still accounts for about one-quarter of all human deaths in wealthy countries and about one-eighth worldwide. Despite significant progress, treatments have not lived up to expectations and cancer research is now at a crossroads, needing new ideas, major innovation, and new and unprecedented interdisciplinary teams of scientists. An important conceptual breakthrough in understanding cancer lies in Darwinian and ecological theories: cancer is a disease of opportunity, associated with clonal evolution, expansion, and competition within the body. What is the level of predictability of cancer dynamics at population and individual organism levels, given our knowledge of population ecology and the genetic, molecular, and demographic characteristics of cells and their microenvironments?
The central objective of the Cancer Evolution Focus Group at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin is to make progress in explaining cancer progression and therapeutic outcomes, as well as to develop novel approaches to cancer prevention and therapy, using evolutionary principles. Members of the Focus Group will be examining how Darwinian evolution has influenced cancers all the way from differences between species (Frédéric Thomas) and between individuals in the same population (Michael Hochberg) to differences within individuals in whom cancers have metastasized (Athena C. Aktipis) and within tumours themselves (Hanna Kokko, Urszula Hibner). Focus Group research will also examine the extent to which pathogens and evolved host resistance to them have impacted host populations (Paul W. Ewald). Finally, there will also be a more applied approach to the Focus Group, to see how Darwinian Medicine can be optimized to treat cancers prior to or at early stages of emergence (Michael Hochberg). The planned products will be scientific articles for specialized audiences and a monograph (Carlo C. Maley).