Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus

Paul Davies, writing in the Grauniad, has thought of a way to approach a cancer cure. The clever bit is, Professor Davies is a noted physicist - nay, a cosmologist, yet - who was asked to think about cancer from a non-biologist perspective, to "think outside of the box", as it is termed.

In the article, Cancer: The beat of an ancient drum? he says,

Two years ago, in a spectacularly enlightened move, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) decided to enlist the help of physical scientists. The idea was to bring fresh insights from disciplines like physics to help tackle cancer in radical new ways. Twelve research centres were created to focus the effort, and I was approached to run the one based at Arizona State University.

With no prior knowledge of cancer, I started asking some very basic questions. What struck me from the outset is that something as pervasive and stubborn as cancer must be a deep part of the story of life itself. Sure enough, cancer is found in almost all multicellular organisms, suggesting its origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years.

So far so good.

A century ago the German biologist Ernst Haekel pointed out that the stages of embryo development recapitulate the evolutionary history of the animal. Human embryos, for instance, develop, then lose, gills, webbed feet and rudimentary tails, reflecting their ancient aquatic life styles. The genes responsible for these features normally get silenced at a later stage of development, but sometimes the genetic control system malfunctions and babies get born with tails and other ancestral traits. Such anomalous features are called atavisms.

Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University is, like me, a cosmologist and astrobiologist with a fascination for how cancer fits into the story of life on Earth. Together we developed the theory that cancer tumours are a type of atavism that appears in the adult form when something disrupts the silencing of ancestral genes. The reason that cancer deploys so many formidable survival traits in succession, is, we think, because the ancient genetic toolkit active in the earliest stages of embryogenesis gets switched back on, re-activating the Proterozoic developmental plan for building cell colonies.

That's "Haeckel". And the plot appears to be from the X-Files, although I think the Cigarette Smoking Man was also involved somewhere along the way. Biologist PZ Myers at Pharyngula has a blog post showing where Davies is wrong, he's wrong, and where he's right, biologists have already thought of it. (They had a head start, after all.) One clue - Haeckel, who came up with his theory in the 1860s, wasn't exactly correct. Ontology does not actually recapitulate phylogeny.

Anyway, the 'theory' doesn't actually include much physics. So I have a better one for you, Prof. Davies. You know how biologists in the 1600s knew that sperm have a little homunculus sitting in the head which, when implanted in a womb, develops into a child and then into an adult? Well, why don't you invent a sort of micro-MRI that you can use to scan the homunculi, and if they have tiny cancers, cut them out using a small knife...a "gamma knife" sounds small, that'll do...and then fertilize eggs with the cured sperm that will grow up to be cancer free adults?

That's "thinking outside the box" for you!

We can share the Nobel.

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