Precision Oncology: Between Vaguely Right and Precisely Wrong.

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Cancer research


Biomarkers, Tumor; Genotype; Humans; Medical Oncology; Molecular Targeted Therapy; Mutation; Neoplasms; Neoplastic Stem Cells; Phenotype; Precision Medicine


Precision Oncology seeks to identify and target the mutation that drives a tumor. Despite its straightforward rationale, concerns about its effectiveness are mounting. What is the biological explanation for the "imprecision?" First, Precision Oncology relies on indiscriminate sequencing of genomes in biopsies that barely represent the heterogeneous mix of tumor cells. Second, findings that defy the orthodoxy of oncogenic "driver mutations" are now accumulating: the ubiquitous presence of oncogenic mutations in silent premalignancies or the dynamic switching without mutations between various cell phenotypes that promote progression. Most troublesome is the observation that cancer cells that survive treatment still will have suffered cytotoxic stress and thereby enter a stem cell-like state, the seeds for recurrence. The benefit of "precision targeting" of mutations is inherently limited by this counterproductive effect. These findings confirm that there is no precise linear causal relationship between tumor genotype and phenotype, a reminder of logician Carveth Read's caution that being vaguely right may be preferable to being precisely wrong. An open-minded embrace of the latest inconvenient findings indicating nongenetic and "imprecise" phenotype dynamics of tumors as summarized in this review will be paramount if Precision Oncology is ultimately to lead to clinical benefits.

Clinical Institute



Institute for Systems Biology