Most human cancer types result from the accumulation of multiple genetic and epigenetic alterations in a single cell. Once the first change (or changes) have arisen, tumorigenesis is initiated and the subsequent emergence of additional alterations drives progression to more aggressive and ultimately invasive phenotypes. Elucidation of the dynamics of cancer initiation is of importance for an understanding of tumor evolution and cancer incidence data. In this paper, we develop a novel mathematical framework to study the processes of cancer initiation. Cells at risk of accumulating oncogenic mutations are organized into small compartments of cells and proliferate according to a stochastic process. During each cell division, an (epi)genetic alteration may arise which leads to a random fitness change, drawn from a probability distribution. Cancer is initiated when a cell gains a fitness sufficiently high to escape from the homeostatic mechanisms of the cell compartment. To investigate cancer initiation during a human lifetime, a 'race' between this fitness process and the aging process of the patient is considered; the latter is modeled as a second stochastic Markov process in an aging dimension. This model allows us to investigate the dynamics of cancer initiation and its dependence on the mutational fitness distribution. Our framework also provides a methodology to assess the effects of different life expectancy distributions on lifetime cancer incidence. We apply this methodology to colorectal tumorigenesis while considering life expectancy data of the US population to inform the dynamics of the aging process. We study how the probability of cancer initiation prior to death, the time until cancer initiation, and the mutational profile of the cancer-initiating cell depends on the shape of the mutational fitness distribution and life expectancy of the population.

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Franziska Michor uses the tools of theoretical evolutionary biology, applied mathematics, statistics, and computational biology to address important questions in cancer research.

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