Cancer patients die primarily due to disease recurrence after transient treatment responses. The emergence of therapy-resistant escape variants is fuelled by intra-tumour heterogeneity, underpinned by interference and Darwinian evolution among continuously developing sub-clones in the mutating tumour. Novel cancer cell variants build upon the pre-existing genetic landscape and tumour heterogeneity is often ascribed largely to genetic variability. While mutations are required for cancer development and studies of genetic evolution of tumours have improved our understanding of cancer biology, especially the therapeutic implications of intra-tumour heterogeneity, genetics only represents one dimension of the fitness of each cancer cell. Beyond the mutations, several non-genetic factors also add significant variability, resulting in a complex and highly dynamic tumour cell population that can drive disease under almost any condition. This viewpoint article summarizes the genetic basis of intra-tumour heterogeneity, before dissecting four major interdependent non-genetic factors we think critically contribute to the overall variability of tumour cells in all types of cancer: epigenetic regulation, cellular differentiation hierarchies, gene expression stochasticity and tumour microenvironment. We finally present the relevant technological approaches to address the combined contribution of both genetic and non-genetic factors to intra-tumour heterogeneity, focusing on genomic profiling, cellular lineage tracing and single-cell RNA sequencing technologies. The development of therapeutics that can tackle the implications of all the tumour variability may be the missing link to successfully translate the accumulated knowledge into improved cancer patient survival and the bar must now be raised to dissection of the full range and depth of intra-tumour heterogeneity. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.