Michael Hochberg

Around 150 years ago, only 1 percent of men and women developed some form of cancer in their lifetime. As humans began to live longer in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, cancer rates increased. Today, the disease afflicts a staggering 40 percent of people in the Western world and is the second leading cause of death globally. 

In his 2020 Darwin Lecture, “Cancer Evolution: From Cells to Species and Back,” SFI External Professor Michael Hochberg, who is Distinguished Research Director with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Montpellier, France, drew on insights from network science and his own expertise in disease modeling to provide an overview of how evolution has shaped cancer into the deadly killer it is today.

He illustrated how natural selection and environmental factors have led to a host of highly individualized cancers and cancers types that are difficult to treat. 

“When we replay the tape of cancer evolution in humans it does not appear to be identical between cancer types or even within cancer types,” says Hochberg. “This high degree of variability creates major challenges for targeted treatments designed to deal with specific tumor types.” 

Hochberg went on to elucidate how the contributions of selection and environment have influenced cancer patterns in well-studied mammals, such as humans, as well as other interesting organism like the naked mole rat, which is not affected by cancer. 

Finally, Hochberg discussed the role natural selection may play in the development and re-occurrence of chemotherapy-resistant tumors as well as new approaches he and other scientists at SFI and elsewhere are developing to treat them. 

“One of the issues with conventional cancer treatments is that they have tended to select for chemo-resistant subpopulations which can lead to the recurrence of more difficult-to-treat tumors down the road,” he said. “What our new research is showing is that by managing these chemo-resistant subpopulations rather than trying to eradicate them, we can use what amounts to Darwinian processes to lengthen the life of those afflicted by late-stage and difficult to treat cancers.” 

Hochberg’s Darwin Lecture was presented by the Linnean Society of London and in association with the Royal Society of Medicine.