Knowledge of evolution and ecology is important to understand and clinically control cancer. Unfortunately, there are few cancer biologists trained in evolution and ecology, and few evolutionary biologists and ecologists work in cancer research. The aim of this new course is to cross-train evolutionary biologists and ecologists in cancer, and to train cancer biologists in the relevant evolutionary biology and ecology to facilitate cross fertilization of ideas and forge active collaborations. For example, in the areas of evolutionary modelling and 'steering' in vitro, in determinants of convergent evolution, and in predictive parameters for evolutionary progression.

Evolution and ecology form the basis of the theory of cancer. Neoplasms evolve at the cellular level. Somatic genetic and epigenetic changes generate diversity among cells, and natural selection leads to the evolution of mutant clones that can proliferate and disseminate throughout the body. Selective pressures within a neoplasm are determined by the ecology of the cells; for example, the tumour microenvironment, cell-cell interactions, the flux of resources within the environment and interactions with the extracellular matrix and the microbiome. Cancer therapeutic interventions often select for resistant clones and therefore fail because of the same evolutionally pressures and ecological dynamics that drive tumour progression.

The focus of this first year will be the ecology of tumour microenvironments, which have a dramatic effect on the behaviour of cancer cells. This course is aimed at researchers currently working in cancer and/or evolution and ecology. It is particularly suited to evolutionary biologists and ecologists interested in moving into cancer research, and to cancer biologists and oncologists who lack formal training in evolutionary biology. Applications are invited from early career scientists, including post-graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and new principle investigators.

Learning outcomes
After attending this course, participants will be able to:

  • Understand the principles from ecology relevant to studying tumour microenvironments.
  • Understand the principles of evolutionary biology as applied to somatic cell evolution in cancer (e.g. generation of diversity, driver mutations, epistasis, selective pressures, cellular co-operation and competition, units of selection).
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the tools and metrics used to measure ecosystems and evolution that can be applied to cancer.
  • Understand the evolutionary dynamics that are important in cell-level evolution within neoplasms.
  • Apply evolutionary and ecological approaches to the problem of therapeutic resistance.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the experimental (therapeutic) tactics for bypassing the evolutionary resilience of cancer including ecosystem directed modulation.
  • Understand the limits of our current knowledge of the evolution and ecology of cancer, and the most important open questions for future research.

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