Scientists are opening a new front in the war on cancer with plans to develop "anti-evolution" drugs to stop tumor cells from developing resistance to treatment.
Britain's Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), one of the world's top cancer centers, said on Friday its initiative was the first to have at its heart the target of overcoming cancer evolution and drug resistance.
In the same way that bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, cancer cells also change to evade the medicines used to fight them, leading to "survival of the nastiest".
As a result, most cancer drugs eventually stop working, causing patients to relapse.
There are signs, however, that drugs can be developed to tackle this problem, while advances in immunotherapy may also make it possible to direct patients' immune systems to adapt in response to cancer changes.
Over the next five years, the ICR aims to discover at least one new drug targeting a novel evolutionary mechanism and a new immunotherapy.
While doctors have known about cancer drug resistance for decades, it is only now, with advances in genetics and the development of ultra-fast DNA sequencing, that scientists are unraveling the factors driving the process.
"We now have an incredibly precise understanding of the genetic basis for resistance," said ICR Chief Executive Paul Workman.
"Over the next five years we will focus all our efforts on overcoming this problem ... we need researchers around the world to embrace the challenge."
Already an experimental medicine inhibiting the protein Hsp90, which cancer cells use to protect themselves from stress, has shown encouraging results in clinical trials. ICR scientists are also working on an even more important controller of the stress response known as HSF1.
Workman said experiments on HSF1 were still at an early stage but scientists were close to selecting a drug candidate.
The end result is likely be the development of a number of combination treatments to stop cancer evolving, similar to the drug cocktails used to control HIV or tuberculosis.
In addition to understanding biology, a large part of the research effort will be driven by "big data", through the use of mathematical models to predict the path of cancer evolution from tumor samples.
Tapping into the terabytes of data thrown up by analyzing the genetic profiles of tumors is an increasing focus of cancer research worldwide. It is also a central plank of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's "moonshot" initiative aimed at finding cures for cancer.