An analysis of genetic heterogeneity in untreated cancers

Johannes G. Reiter, Marina Baretti, Jeffrey M. Gerold, Alvin P. Makohon-Moore, Adil Daud, Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, Nilofer S. Azad, Kenneth W. Kinzler, Martin A. Nowak, Bert Vogelstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Genetic intratumoural heterogeneity is a natural consequence of imperfect DNA replication. Any two randomly selected cells, whether normal or cancerous, are therefore genetically different. Here, we review the different forms of genetic heterogeneity in cancer and re-analyse the extent of genetic heterogeneity within seven types of untreated epithelial cancers, with particular regard to its clinical relevance. We find that the homogeneity of predicted functional mutations in driver genes is the rule rather than the exception. In primary tumours with multiple samples, 97% of driver-gene mutations in 38 patients were homogeneous. Moreover, among metastases from the same primary tumour, 100% of the driver mutations in 17 patients were homogeneous. With a single biopsy of a primary tumour in 14 patients, the likelihood of missing a functional driver-gene mutation that was present in all metastases was 2.6%. Furthermore, all functional driver-gene mutations detected in these 14 primary tumours were present among all their metastases. Finally, we found that individual metastatic lesions responded concordantly to targeted therapies in 91% of 44 patients. These analyses indicate that the cells within the primary tumours that gave rise to metastases are genetically homogeneous with respect to functional driver-gene mutations, and we suggest that future efforts to develop combination therapies have the potential to be curative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)639-650
Number of pages12
JournalNature Reviews Cancer
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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