Dispatches from Denver – Day 2

Physicists have an interesting view of cancer. During the past few March Meetings, a challenging idea has been put forth: that cancer represents a atavism back towards an ancestral state. That is, before single cells groups together to make multicellular organisms, rapid division was the name of the game. But now, as in our modern, specialized society, cells need to act for the greater good of the whole organism, and reproduction had been confined to the germ cells. In fact, to build complicated organisms, some cells must commit suicide (apoptosis). Paul Davies explained cancer using the analogy of a genie in a bottle. Inside all cells is the ancestral program to multiply like crazy, which has been reined in by more recent adaptations. He says that certain mutations “break the bottle” and release the genie. (I sometimes think about some of the early versions of the Windows Operating system, which, were built upon the even older MS-DOS framework). Therefore, there is no point in trying to examine the shards of the bottle to understand why cells turned cancerous, they are just defaulting to their original pre-programmed state. He said that the reason evolution hasn’t eliminated these old subroutines is that they are used in some very central functions, like embryogenesis and would healing. This theory predicts some ways to combat cancer – according to this, cancer cells are most comfortable in environments similar to those of protozoic oceans from 1.5 billion years ago and it is already known that cancer cells prefer low oxygen situations. Charles Lineweaver suggests using biological warfare against cancer, which cannot muster an immune response, since this requires specialization of cells. One idea is to intentionally infect the patient with a pathogen that has a vaccine, so the cancer cells would be vulnerable, but the healthy cells would have the protection of the adaptive immune system.


Author: lnemzer

Associate Professor Nova Southeastern University

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