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Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2013 Dec;32(3-4):353-61. doi: 10.1007/s10555-013-9426-8.

Do mutator mutations fuel tumorigenesis?

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Department of Pathology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.


The mutator phenotype hypothesis proposes that the mutation rate of normal cells is insufficient to account for the large number of mutations found in human cancers. Consequently, human tumors exhibit an elevated mutation rate that increases the likelihood of a tumor acquiring advantageous mutations. The hypothesis predicts that tumors are composed of cells harboring hundreds of thousands of mutations, as opposed to a small number of specific driver mutations, and that malignant cells within a tumor therefore constitute a highly heterogeneous population. As a result, drugs targeting specific mutated driver genes or even pathways of mutated driver genes will have only limited anticancer potential. In addition, because the tumor is composed of such a diverse cell population, tumor cells harboring drug-resistant mutations will exist prior to the administration of any chemotherapeutic agent. We present recent evidence in support of the mutator phenotype hypothesis, major arguments against this concept, and discuss the clinical consequences of tumor evolution fueled by an elevated mutation rate. We also consider the therapeutic possibility of altering the rate of mutation accumulation. Most significantly, we contend that there is a need to fundamentally reconsider current approaches to personalized cancer therapy. We propose that targeting cellular pathways that alter the rate of mutation accumulation in tumors will ultimately prove more effective than attempting to identify and target mutant driver genes or driver pathways.

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