The Contribution of Evolutionary Game Theory to Understanding and Treating Cancer

Benjamin Wölfl, Hedy te Rietmole, Monica Salvioli, Artem Kaznatcheev, Frank Thuijsman, Joel S. Brown, Boudewijn Burgering, Kateřina Staňková*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
236 Downloads (Pure)


Evolutionary game theory mathematically conceptualizes and analyzes biological interactions where one’s fitness not only depends on one’s own traits, but also on the traits of others. Typically, the individuals are not overtly rational and do not select, but rather inherit their traits. Cancer can be framed as such an evolutionary game, as it is composed of cells of heterogeneous types undergoing frequency-dependent selection. In this article, we first summarize existing works where evolutionary game theory has been employed in modeling cancer and improving its treatment. Some of these game-theoretic models suggest how one could anticipate and steer cancer’s eco-evolutionary dynamics into states more desirable for the patient via evolutionary therapies. Such therapies offer great promise for increasing patient survival and decreasing drug toxicity, as demonstrated by some recent studies and clinical trials. We discuss clinical relevance of the existing game-theoretic models of cancer and its treatment, and opportunities for future applications. Moreover, we discuss the developments in cancer biology that are needed to better utilize the full potential of game-theoretic models. Ultimately, we demonstrate that viewing tumors with evolutionary game theory has medically useful implications that can inform and create a lockstep between empirical findings and mathematical modeling. We suggest that cancer progression is an evolutionary competition between different cell types and therefore needs to be viewed as an evolutionary game.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-342
Number of pages30
JournalDynamic Games and Applications
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Competitive release
  • Eco-evolutionary dynamics
  • Evolutionary game theory
  • Genetics
  • Resistance
  • Stackelberg evolutionary games


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