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4.9 Eradicating Metastatic Cancer and the Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics of Anthropocene Extinctions

Robert A. Gatenby, Yael Artzy-Randrup, Tamir Epstein, Damon R. Reed, Joel S. Brown

Keywords: Complex networks, Complexity science studies, Eco-evolutionary Dynamics, Biological systems, Anthropocene. 


Curative therapy for metastatic cancers is equivalent to causing extinction of a large, heterogeneous, and geographically dispersed population. Although eradication of dinosaurs is a dramatic example of extinction dynamics, similar application of massive eco-evolutionary force in cancer treatment is typically limited by host toxicity. Here, we investigate the evolutionary dynamics of Anthropocene species extinctions as an alternative model for curative cancer therapy. Human activities can produce extinctions of large, diverse, and geographically distributed populations. The extinction of a species typically follows a pattern in which initial demographic and ecological insults reduce the size and heterogeneity of the population. The surviving individuals, with decreased genetic diversity and often fragmented ecology, are then vulnerable to small stochastic perturbations that further reduce the population until extinction is inevitable. We hypothesize large, diverse, and disseminated cancer populations can be eradicated using similar evolutionary dynamics. Initial therapy is applied to reduce population size and diversity and followed by new treatments to exploit the eco-evolutionary vulnerability of small and/or declining populations. Mathematical models and computer simulations demonstrate initial reductive treatment followed immediately by demographic and ecological perturbations, similar to the empirically derived treatment of pediatric acute lymphocytic leukemia, can consistently achieve curative outcomes in nonpediatric cancers.


Anthropocene extinctions suggest a strategy for eradicating metastatic cancers in which initial therapy, by reducing the size and diversity of the population, renders it vulnerable to extinction by rapidly applied additional perturbations.

Gatenby, RA, et al, (2020). Eradicating Metastatic Cancer and the Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics of Anthropocene Extinctions. Cancer Research, 80(3), 613-623