An unprecedented analysis of how cancers grow has revealed an “almost infinite” ability of tumors to evolve and survive, say scientists. The BBC reports:

The results of tracking lung cancers for nine years left the research team “surprised” and “in awe” at the formidable force they were up against. They have concluded we need more focus on prevention, with a “universal” cure unlikely any time soon. The study — entitled TracerX — provides the most in-depth analysis of how cancers evolve and what causes them to spread. More than 400 people — treated at 13 hospitals in the UK — had biopsies taken from different parts of their lung cancer as the disease progressed.

The evolutionary analysis has been published across seven separate studies in the journals Nature and Nature Medicine. The research showed:

– Highly aggressive cells in the initial tumor are the ones that ultimately end up spreading around the body
– Tumors showing higher levels of genetic “chaos” were more likely to relapse after surgery to other parts of the body
– Analyzing blood for fragments of tumor DNA meant signs of it returning could be spotted up to 200 days before appearing on a CT scan
– The cellular machinery that reads the instructions in our DNA can become corrupted in cancerous cells making them more aggressive.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to come up with universal cures,” said Prof Charles Swanton, from the Francis Crick Institute and University College London. “If we want to make the biggest impact we need to focus on prevention, early detection and early detection of relapse.”

Last week, Dr Paul Burton, the chief medical officer of pharmaceutical company Moderna, said he believes the firm will be able to offer vaccines for cancer, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and other conditions by 2030. The new analysis reported on by the BBC casts doubt on that timeline.

“I don’t want to sound too depressing about this, but I think — given the almost infinite possibilities in which a tumor can evolve, and the very large number of cells in a late-stage tumor, which could be several hundred billion cells — then achieving cures in all patients with late-stage disease is a formidable task,” said Swanton.