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Dana-Farber scientist Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD, remembers reading The Beak of the Finch, a book about two researchers who observed evolution unfold among certain songbirds on the Galapagos Islands, and thinking, "This could be applied to tumors."
A self-described "fan of evolution," Polyak has made several trips to the Galapagos, a group of islands off the coast of Ecuador famous as the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The visits have not only fed her fascination with the diversity of life but also stimulated her interest in the behavior of cancer cells.
In the mid-2000s, Polyak met a similarly evolution-minded scientist, Franziska Michor, then a graduate student in Harvard's Evolutionary Biology Department, now the principal investigator at the Physical Science-Oncology Center. Their conversations "evolved" into a full-fledged partnership that has resulted in several research projects in recent years.
In one study, they explored the order in which genetic alterations occur in certain types of breast cancer, information that may improve doctors' ability to detect the disease in early stages, gauge a patient's degree of risk, and even prevent the disease. In another study, they found that cells within a single breast tumor are far from identical in terms of the genetic mutations they carry, suggesting that such tumors may best be treated with several mutation-targeting drugs.
"The idea that evolution plays a role in the growth and development of tumors is not new, but our ability to study it at a molecular level is," Polyak says. "The better we understand heterogeneity – the genetic and non-genetic diversity of cells within a tumor – the smarter we can be about selecting the best treatment."
Paths of Progress Fall/Winter 2012 Table of Contents