The biggest problem in cancer evolution? That mostly people like me are doing it.

Series on Tumor Evolution

Do you know how I ended up working on cancer evolution? I would like to say it was deep thinking, profound insights and scientific vision that led me there, but -alas- the truth is that I was just really bad at proposing interesting projects to one of my first postdocs.

“Evolution? What’s that? Darwin and his finches? Forget it!”

Every time I said ‘How about integrating copy number and gene expression’ or ‘How about reconstructing networks from expression profiles’ he answered politely: “Yes, that sounds very interesting, but I would rather do evolution.”

“Evolution?” I said. “Like Darwin and his finches? Forget it! I don’t think we have that in cancer!” I said. “Be sensible and don’t ruin your career. Do genomics, like I tell you. That’s the future!” I said.

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Fancy a challenge? A DREAM of intra-tumour phylogenies

You are into tumor evolution? And got a fancy model? Want to battle with the best?

Then check out the ICGC-TCGA DREAM Somatic Mutation Calling – Tumour Heterogeneity Challenge (SMC-Het).

These are the days of Big Science, my friend. You can’t just have a short name …

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Technocrats versus scientists – the managerial mindset in UK elite universities

You must have heard about the death of Prof Stefan Grimm, who apparently had been bullied by his departmental line managers at Imperial College London.

In case you have missed it, you can read the whole sad story at DC’ science: Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm.

ICL will of course claim that bullying is not endemic and this was a very sad but isolated case.

Evidence-based decision making in academic research

However, rather helpfully, a Mr John T Green has written a paper about the managerial mindset at ICL: Evidence-based decision making in academic research: The “Snowball” effect.

The paper appeared in 2013 in a journal called The Academic Executive Brief – welcome to the Dark Side!

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Cancer heterogeneity and evolution – the review to end all reviews

Series on Tumor Evolution

“A particular successful guide to understanding and modeling cancer progression has been evolutionary theory, which has a long tradition in cancer research. Already 40 years ago, seminal work established an evolutionary view of cancer (Nowell 1976; Dexter et al. 1978; Fidler 1978), in which carcinogenesis is regarded as an evolutionary process driven by stepwise somatic mutations and clonal expansions,”

write the authors of an awesome new review paper titled Cancer evolution: mathematical models and computational inference. (Obviously, I am not biased at all. I would call it ‘awesome’ even if I wasn’t one of the authors – I swear!)

Writing the review article made me wonder how the long tradition of an evolutionary understanding of cancer plays out on PubMed. Using code by R-psychologist I plotted the following figure, which shows the number of PubMed hits for queries on ‘cancer evolution’ (red), ‘cancer heterogeneity’ (yellow), as well as reviews on these topics (green). You can find my complete analysis as an R markdown document on my webpage.

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Figure 1: The number of papers on pubmed on ‘cancer evolution’ (red), ‘cancer heterogeneity’ (yellow), as well as reviews on these topics (green). Code and exact PubMed queries in R markdown document on my webpage.

What is the smallest reviewable result?

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The benefits of being a big name. Or: In science your name is your brand

Being a big name in science brings benefits, writes Chris Woolston in Nature, but a “study that links scientists’ reputations with their citations triggers online talk.”

And knowing ‘online talk’ it’s save to assume most of it was negative.

So let’s see what it is all about. Woolston summarizes the situation nicely:

“Scientists develop reputations that often work to their advantage.” *

I am happy to hear this: If you have a reputation for doing good work it bloody well should make your life easier.

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Inferring tumour evolution 5 – single cell data

Series on Tumor Evolution

Welcome back to the intra-tumour phylogeny problem. Let’s take a quick breather and see what we have got to so far:

  1. Introducing the intra-tumour phylogeny problem;
  2. Comparison to classical phylogeny;
  3. Methods for single samples;
  4. Methods for multiple samples.

And today’s topic finally is:

Single cell analysis

Single cell sequencing wherever you look!

In breast cancer (e.g. here and here). In leukemia (e.g. here and here). And some very visible studies from the BGI in renal carcinoma, a myeloproliferative neoplasm, bladder cancer and colon cancer. That’s certainly enough material to start reviewing it.

Cancer genomics: one cell at a time” by Nicholas Navin gives a very good overview of methods to isolate single cancer cells, amplify their genomes, profile mutations and reconstruct evolutionary trajectories. And -even better- the review goes beyond a simple laundry list of methods to comment on their strengths and limitations. If you are interested in single cell genomics in cancer, this is a must-read.

I had originally planned to write a more methods-focused post (on what you actually do with all those genomes), but this will have to wait and here I will use Navin’s review as a starting point for my own discussion of some conceptual points that went through my mind while I read it:

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And the 2014 Ponder Prize for Teambuilding goes to …

The highlight of every annual Institute Retreat is the team building challenge.

There even is a trophy for it, called the ‘Ponder Prize for Teambuilding’.

This year’s challenge was to build a marble run within 1.5h using only paper and other cheap stuff.

And guess who won the competition!?

No, not them.

It was us!

You can see the prize-winning result in the video below.

The music is straight from the ‘Bavarian feast’ that followed the retreat.

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Inferring tumour evolution – time for a commercial break

If science blogs are good, citable papers might be even better.

So go on then, cite this:

Cancer evolution: mathematical models and computational inference
by Niko Beerenwinkel, Roland F Schwarz, Moritz Gerstung and yours truly,
Advance Access at Systematic Biology:

Cancer is a somatic evolutionary process characterized by the accumulation of mutations, which contribute to tumor growth, clinical progression, immune escape, and drug resistance development.

Evolutionary theory can be used to analyze the dynamics of tumor cell populations and to make inference about the evolutionary history of a tumor from molecular data.

We review recent approaches to modeling the evolution of cancer, including population dynamics models of tumor initiation and progression, phylogenetic methods to model the evolutionary relationship between tumor subclones, and probabilistic graphical models to describe dependencies among mutations.

Evolutionary modeling helps to understand how tumors arise and will also play an increasingly important prognostic role in predicting disease progression and the outcome of medical interventions, such as targeted therapy.



Beerenwinkel, N., Schwarz, R., Gerstung, M., & Markowetz, F. (2014). Cancer evolution: mathematical models and computational inference Systematic Biology DOI: 10.1093/sysbio/syu081

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How to bounce back from grant rejection – now with real tips

Nature Jobs had a recent post called “How to bounce back from grant rejection“. The article is nice but the title is misleading: instead of a how-to guide it rather is a list of the “six stages of scientific grief” directly adapted from Kübler-Ross.

Have a look at it, it’s a nice read, but afterwards you still don’t know how to actually make sure that you bounce back on track after getting your wonderful proposal slapped in your face.

We regret to inform you …

The situations I have in mind are like this: When you applied for a fancy-pants grant (like the orange circle ones) and you made it to the last round of interviews – and then you get rejected!

Or when you applied for a super-duper funded PI position, got short-listed and interviewed – and then you get rejected!

Your hopes were high, you thought you could make it, the champagne was already on ice – and then you get rejected!

What to do then? Here is the guide from the front lines.

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Inferring tumour evolution 4 – methods for multiple samples of the same tumour

Series on Tumor Evolution

Here is the table again that I introduced last time to organise tumor phylogeny approaches along some basic principles:

Figure 1

Figure 1 as introduced in the last post

In the last post we discussed 1a and 1b, now we are off to 2a and 2b.
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You’re not allowed bioinformatics anymore

Florian Markowetz:

Our institute director is a bioinformatician – so this could actually happen. But then again, none of my experimental colleagues would be as stupid as Prof Smith.

Originally posted on opiniomics:

Ah welcome! Come in, come in!” said the institute director as Professor Smith appeared for their scheduled 2pm meeting. “I want to talk to you about your latest proposal”, the director continued.

“Oh?” replied Smith.

“Yes. Now, let’s see. It’s an amazing, visionary proposal, a great collaboration, and congratulations on pulling it together. I just have one question” said the director “This proposal will generate a huge amount of data – how do you plan to deal with it all?”

“Oh that’s easy!” answered Smith. “It’s all on page 6. We’ve requested funds to employ a bioinformatician for the lifetime of the project. They’ll deal with all of the data” he stated, triumphantly.

The director frowned.

“I see. Do you yourself have any experience of bioinformatics?”

Smith seemed uncertain.

“Well, no…..”

“Then how will you be able to guide the bioinformatician, to ensure they are using appropriate tools? How…

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Managing upwards works! Until it doesn’t

“You are not working for me, I am working with you on your project”

This is one of the first sentences in a document I have written for new starters in my lab. I want to be explicit about the expectations I have of them. And being proactive and independent is very high on my list.

It’s OK to be pushy!

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 21.35.15

I also give all new starters a copy of Kearns and Gardiner’s Nature article The care and maintenance of your adviser:

“Maintaining your adviser means asking for what you need rather than hoping that he or she will know what to provide. …

[A]lthough it is natural to complain about your adviser — and can even be cathartic — it is not enough.

If your adviser is not giving you what you need, you need to go out and get it. “

I think this is very helpful advise for students and postdocs: It is Ok to be pushy!

The way I understand this part of a supervisor-student relationship is: If you need me I’ll help you in all ways I can. But you need to tell me what you need.

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If not my science, at least my blog made it into Nature

Chris Woolston writes Nature’s roundup of the papers and issues gaining traction on social media. And in his newest article `Sanger’s legacy stirs up digital chatter‘ he cites my recent blog post `Don’t worry, Fred Sanger, you’d be fine! Today’s science ain’t that bad after all‘.

My own post provides the upbeat counter-point to what François Gould, a palaeontology postdoc at Northeast Ohio Medical University, had said.

Gould explained that his tweet reflects his frustration with the grant process.

“Most of us trying to make it as junior scientists aren’t playing in Fred Sanger’s league,” he said.

From his perspective, it is still hugely challenging to convince a grant committee to take a chance on a young principal investigator who lacks a long history of publications.

I certainly sympathize with Gould. Not very many of us play in Sanger’s league – and we certainly shouldn’t have to to make a living in science.

However, my own former postdocs, who have now started independent labs, all struggle to secure funding, so I think Gould is completely right.

Maybe my more relaxed view is just very easily explained by the security that tenure in a core funded institute brings …



Grep beats FusionMap, FusionFinder and ChimeraScan

This is amazing!

I have never used FusionMap, FusionFinder or ChimeraScan myself, so I don’t know if they belong into the class of fancy named methods with only marginal improvements that I have been known to rant about (on and on) – but kudos to Panagopoulos et al for showing the amazing power of grep:

The “Grep” Command But Not FusionMap, FusionFinder or ChimeraScan Captures the CIC-DUX4 Fusion Gene from Whole Transcriptome Sequencing Data on a Small Round Cell Tumor with t(4;19)(q35;q13).
Panagopoulos I, Gorunova L, Bjerkehagen B, Heim S.
PLoS One. 2014 Jun 20;9(6):e99439. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099439. eCollection 2014.

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Submitting to PNAS as a commoner

As PNAS marches into its second century, debate about its idiosyncratic publishing mechanisms is sure to continue,

writes Peter Aldhous in a News Feature in the current issue of Nature. Most of the discussion seems to be about the ‘contributed’ publication track, which makes PNAS look like an old boys’ club:

[S]uccessive editors-in-chief have been dogged by the view that PNAS is a club for academy members. “We want to remove this perception,” says current editor-in-chief Inder Verma […]. The steady growth of direct submissions bears witness to efforts by Verma and his predecessors to make the journal attractive to scientists who are not academy members. (Aldhous 2014)

Hey, they are talking about me! I am not an academy member (not this one, not any other) and, yes, last year it somehow seemed like a good idea to submit a paper to PNAS.

So here is my experience with this journal (N=1 and won’t become larger any time soon):

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