Article Review: The Clonal Evolution of Tumor Cell Populations

LeonardRev. Dr. Leonard M. Hummel
Professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care
Gettysburg Seminary
Gettysburg, PA 17325

GayleWoloschakGayle E. Woloschak,
Northwestern University School of Medicine, Chicago IL;
Zygon Center for Religion and Science,
Lutheran School of Theology Chicago, IL;


The Clonal Evolution of Tumor Cell Populations
Author(s): Peter C. Nowell
Science, New Series, Vol. 194, No. 4260 (Oct. 1, 1976), pp. 23

A recent article in Nature Reviews Cancer, “Pancreatic Cancer Biology and Genetics from an Evolutionary Perspective,” begins with this claim:

“Cancer is an evolutionary disease, containing the hallmarks of an asexually reproducing unicellular organism subject to evolutionary paradigms.”(1)

As we shall make clear in this series, the authors of this particular piece are not alone in their assertion, because the science on cancer is as clear and certain as it gets: this disease is one of evolutionary development. That is, cancers progress according to evolutionary principles when cells—“the very fiber of our being” in the language of a Novena to Saint Peregrine(2) —go their own way and, thereby threaten the rest of that “fiber.” To be clear, evolution of species and evolution of cancers are not identical processes, but they have many common mechanisms and selection processes. The development of cancer is an evolutionary process in that evolves in the patient over time through dynamic progress of chance and necessity.

Peter Nowell’s article was seminal for the now burgeoning literature on cancer and evolution. To be sure, cancer’s evolutionary nature had been considered before Nowell’s publication (e.g. Morley Roberts, Malignancy and Evolution: A Biological Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Cancer London: Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1926; 3 Theodosius Dobzhansky “Human Diversity and Adaptation” Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol 1950 15: 385-400), but Nowell’s article stands out by employing the growing understanding in his time of genetic mutations and consequent “stepwise” (natural) selection of cells as the processes by which cancers develop. Cancer as a disease of evolutionary development driven by dynamisms of chance and necessity—that is the thesis by Nowell which, even with subsequent variations and developments—has remained a productive theory for cancer research.


  1. NATURE REVIEWS CANCER VOLUME 16 | SEPTEMBER 2016 | 553 Pancreatic cancer biology and genetics from an evolutionary perspective Alvin Makohon-Moore1,2 and Christine A. Iacobuzio-Donahue2,3,4.

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