Researchers at Cancer Center Amsterdam have developed a method to measure the variability of chromosomal aberrations in tumor cells, or heterogeneity. After calculating the heterogeneity for tumors of 11,534 patients, they found that patients with a high heterogeneity have a worse prognosis.

Cancer cells present in a tumor can have different properties and characteristics, including metabolism, proliferation, genetic expression and chromosomal arrangements or copy numbers.

Some cancer patients die soon after their diagnosis, while others live with the disease for a long time or achieve remission. These differences between patients are currently not understood on a genetic level, even though all cancers are caused by aberrations in DNA. Some of these aberrations arise from errors in DNA replication during cell division. As tumors grow, aberrations can be present in some parts of the tumor, but not in others. The result is a variety of cancer cells present in a tumor with different properties and characteristics, such as metabolism, proliferation, gene expression and chromosomal arrangements or copy number. The variability of cancer cells present within a tumor is known as heterogeneity.

New research from the labs of Louis Vermeulen and Daniël Miedema reveals that tumor heterogeneity highly correlates with disease outcome. They developed a method to determine the heterogeneity of chromosomal copy numbers in a tumor from a single biopsy. First author Erik van Dijk explains:

“We applied this method to public databases with 11,534 patients with 37 different types of cancer, and found that the heterogeneity predicts the survival rates of patients for all these types of cancer. We also found that tumor types with a good prognosis, like thyroid cancer, tend to have a low heterogeneity, whereas tumor types with a poor prognosis, like esophageal cancer, tend to have a high heterogeneity.”

This work provides a molecular explanation for different survival rates seen in cancer patients. In the future, it may contribute to a more accurate prognosis for patients and better selection of the appropriate treatment.

Read the article 'Chromosomal copy number heterogeneity predicts survival rates across cancers' in Nature Communications.