18 January 2016
Despite extraordinary efforts to profile cancer genomes, interpreting the vast amount of genomic data in the light of cancer evolution remains challenging. Here we demonstrate that neutral tumor evolution results in a power-law distribution of the mutant allele frequencies reported by next-generation sequencing of tumor bulk samples. We find that the neutral power-law fits with high precision 323 of 904 cancers from 14 types, selected from different cohorts. In malignancies identified as neutral, all clonal selection occurred prior to the onset of cancer growth and not in later-arising subclones, resulting in numerous passenger mutations that are responsible for intra-tumor heterogeneity. Reanalyzing cancer sequencing data within the neutral framework allowed the measurement, in each patient, of both the in vivo mutation rate and the order and timing of mutations. This result provides a new way to interpret existing cancer genomic data and to discriminate between functional and non-functional intra-tumor heterogeneity.