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On measuring selection in cancer from subclonal mutation frequencies

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Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sep 2019

Abstract

Recently available cancer sequencing data have revealed a complex view of the cancer genome containing a multitude of mutations, including drivers responsible for cancer progression and neutral passengers. Measuring selection in cancer and distinguishing drivers from passengers have important implications for development of novel treatment strategies. It has recently been argued that a third of cancers are evolving neutrally, as their mutational frequency spectrum follows a 1/f power law expected from neutral evolution in a particular intermediate frequency range. We study a stochastic model of cancer evolution and derive a formula for the probability distribution of the cancer cell frequency of a subclonal driver, demonstrating that driver frequency is biased towards 0 and 1. We show that it is difficult to capture a driver mutation at an intermediate frequency, and thus the calling of neutrality due to a lack of such driver will significantly overestimate the number of neutrally evolving tumors. Our approach provides precise quantification of the validity of the 1/f statistic across the entire range of all relevant parameter values. We also show that our conclusions remain valid for non-exponential models: spatial 3d model and sigmoidal growth, relevant for early- and late stages of cancer growth.

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