Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
10 new things we’ve learned about cancer
Cancer's sweet tooth. Turning cancer cells into fat. Unveiling genetic secrets. Scientists are learning about cancer every day.
- Cancer is a leading cause of death among Americans, second only to heart disease.
- Researchers are unearthing cancer's genetic secrets and, with it, potential new treatments.
- Their efforts have seen the cancer death rate for men, women, and children fall year after year between 1999 and 2016.
The 21st century has been, and will continue to be, shaped by cancer. Although heart disease remains the United States' number one killer, cancer is quickly closing the gap and may soon surpass it. Some oncologists claim a cure is five, 10, certainly no more than 20 years away. Others aren't so sure because, in a way, cancer is the price we pay for evolutionary success.
"It is no coincidence that the very genes that allow our embryos to grow — our hands to grow, our feet to grow — if you mutate them in inappropriate contexts, [they] will ultimately release the disease that kills us," said oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, who dubbed cancer the Emperor of All Maladies, also the title of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Whether for five years or forever, cancer won't be going anywhere any time soon. Yet, the more doctors and scientists discover about it, the better we can learn to live with it.
A love-hate relationship: Cancer and antioxidants
Contrary to what many believe, cancer enjoys a nutrient-rich diet as much as the next cell because it helps it grow, even those legendary antioxidants.
In two independent studies published in Cell, Swedish and American research teams found that lung cancer utilizes antioxidants to activate a protein called BACH1. This protein stimulates the cancer cells to metabolize glucose and accelerate metastasis. Even without a ready supply of dietary antioxidants available, the tumor would simply produce its own.
Professor Martin Bergo, who led the Swedish study, hopes this research will help develop new treatments. "We now have important new information on lung cancer metastasis, making it possible for us to develop new treatments, such as ones based on inhibiting BACH1," he said in a release.
Does this mean you should abstain from antioxidant-rich foods? Not at all. Antioxidants do neutralize the free radicals that cause oxidative stress on cells. Preventing such cell damage can help prevent cancer.
However, it's best to avoid antioxidant supplements unless prescribed by a doctor. As reported by the National Cancer Institute, of nine randomized-controlled clinical trials, none provided evidence that such supplements lower cancer risks. A few even found that beta-carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer so severely that the trials had to be ended prematurely.
Get your antioxidants from fruits, veggies, and beans instead. Research suggests that these antioxidants work in combination with additional molecules found in the whole foods. It's this tag-team effect that ultimately give antioxidants their salubrious power.
Cancer costs (in more ways than one)
It goes without saying that cancer is costly. The physical strain of treatment. The potential loss of life, whether one's own or the life of a loved one. And even if one survives, there's the emotional cost of the ordeal.
But the toll imposed by cancer is more than physical or psychological. A study released last year found "that 42 percent of patients deplete their life savings during the first two years of treatment." Of the 9.5 million newly diagnosed cancer patients surveyed, the study calculated average losses at $92,098.
Its authors dubbed the effect "financial toxicity" and concluded: "As large financial burdens have been found to adversely affect access to care and outcomes, the active development of approaches to mitigate these effects among already vulnerable groups remains of key importance."
Cancer's sweet tooth
A recent study found a positive association between a daily sugary drink and an increased risk of cancer.
Researchers asked more than 100,000 people to complete surveys looking at their usual consumption of 3,300 foods and beverages. The results? A positive association between daily consumption of a sugary beverage and an increased risk of cancer. The sugary drinks not only included soda but also 100 percent fruit juice and artificially sweetened drinks.
"These data support the relevance of existing nutritional recommendations to limit sugary drink consumption, including 100% fruit juice, as well as policy actions, such as taxation and marketing restrictions targeting sugary drinks, which might potentially contribute to the reduction of cancer incidence," the researchers stated in a release.
Don't go trashing the OJ just yet, though. As an observational study, the data could not establish a cause-effect relationship, and the researchers note the results are only preliminary. Additionally, the results hinge on the memories of the participants. (What exactly did you eat for breakfast the Monday before last?)
But the study helps stress the American Institute for Cancer Research's (AICR) suggestion to limit sugary beverages. Try to remove soda from your diet. Drink 100 percent fruit juices with no added sugar sparingly. And of course, enjoy an active, healthy lifestyle.
Cancer on the grill
It's a summer tradition to throw some meat on the grill alongside a good beer. But grilled meats hide a few furtive carcinogens: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines.
The hydrocarbons are carried in the smoke after fat burns on the flame, while the heterocyclic amines form when sugars, amino acids, and creatine react at high heats. Neither has been proven to cause cancer, but they are known mutagens that can damage DNA after being metabolized.
"Research shows that diets high in red and processed meat increase risk for colon cancer," said Alice Bender, AIRC Senior Director of Nutrition Programs. "And grilling meat, red or white, at high temperatures forms potent cancer-causing substances."
Like sugary drinks, however, you don't have to forever hang up your "Kiss the Cook" apron. The institute has several suggestions for safe summer grilling, such as limiting red meat, marinating foods beforehand, keeping a low flame, and throwing more vegetables into the mix.
A unified theory of leukemia
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) afflicts about one in 2,000 children, and Mel Greaves, at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, believes he's found the cause. Researching 30 years of data and medical literature on childhood leukemia, he argues the "delayed infection" is the culprit.
According to this theory, children develop a pre-leukemia mutation in utero. The mutation remains inert until later in life when the child encounters a common infection. The microbes then trigger secondary genetic changes that led to overt leukemia.
Does this mean children are safe only in cleanrooms? Strike that, reverse it. Greaves believes exposure to germs in the first year of life is proactive. It trains the immune system to deal with pathogens, therefore preventing the secondary mutation from triggering.
"Childhood ALL can be viewed as a paradoxical consequence of progress in modern societies, where behavioral changes have restrained early microbial exposure," Greaves writes. "This engenders an evolutionary mismatch between historical adaptations of the immune system and contemporary lifestyles. Childhood ALL may be a preventable cancer."
The future of cancer treatment is genetic
A major stride toward our understanding of cancer came with the Human Genome Project. Why? At its core, cancer is a genetic disease.
Our ability to sequence and read cancerous genomes will be a major step toward cancer treatments. As Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told Big Think:
"[The] standard of care for many types of cancer is going to be: Get that tumor, read out its DNA, sequence its genome and based on what you've seen what's wrong with that tumor -- not by looking at it under a microscope only or by looking at it in a sort of a gross fashion but actually looking inside its blueprint -- you will be able to have a much better way of deciding what types of treatments to pursue and have a much better idea about what's wrong in that kind of tumor."
A future treatment? The "cancer vaccine"
An airman receives a vaccine. Could the future of cancer treatment be as easy as a shot?
Rather than using chemotherapy to combat cancer with the subtlety of an atomic bomb, immunotherapies aim to uncloak cancer cells, so the body's immune system can go on the offensive
One example of an immunotherapeutic approach is the so-called "cancer vaccine." During its clinical trial, 11 patients had a tumor injected with a steroid to bolster the site's dendritic cells — immune system cells that specialize in processing antigens.
Following a light dose of radiation and a stimulant, the patients' dendritic cells directed T-cells to attack the cancer cells. Once the T-cells could recognize the tumor, they became able to locate cancer cells throughout the body.
Of the 11 patients, three saw their cancer go into regression or remission. Six others had their cancer stymied for at least three months.
"It's really promising, and the fact you get not only responses in treated areas, but areas outside the field [of treatment with radiation] is really significant," Dr. Silvia Formenti, chairwoman of radiation oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian, told CNBC. (Dr. Formenti was not involved in the study.)
Turning tumors into fat
Cancer cells spreading to other parts of the body through the circulatory system.
A deadly tool in cancer's arsenal is cell plasticity, a cell's ability to alter its physiological characteristics. It is one of the reasons cancers can metastasize throughout the body, and it helps the disease resist treatments.
Researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, have hijacked this ability and turned it against cancer. Using a drug therapy that combined an anti-diabetic drug and MEK inhibitors, they attacked cancer cells and turned them into adipocytes (a.k.a. fat cells).
While this did not remove the tumor, it did make the cells post-miotic, meaning they could no longer divide. This inhibited the cancer's ability to spread.
"In future, this innovative therapeutic approach could be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy to suppress both primary tumor growth and the formation of deadly metastases," senior study author Gerhard Christofori told Medical News Today.
An image of the E. coli bacteria. Will these become the next breakthrough in cancer therapies?
Another advancement in cancer treatment is synthetic biology, a field in which scientists use the principals of engineering to redesign biological systems. In one example, researchers genetically programmed a non-pathogenic E. coli strain to attack tumors in lab mice.
Once injected, the rewired bacteria took refuge in the tumor, where they self-destructed. These dead bacteria leaked from the tumor, and thanks to encoded nanobodies, drew the attention of T-cells which devoured the bacteria and tumor alike.
Of course, lab tests in mice do not guarantee a successful transition to human patients, but it remains a promising avenue for treatment.
"At some point in the future, we will use programmable bacteria for treatment," Michael Dougan, an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the New York Times. "I think there's just too much potential."
A new attitude toward cancer
Medical professionals originally viewed cancer as a disease to be destroyed with extreme prejudice; the treatment was only better than the disease because the disease ended in death.
But as David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at USC, told us, there are better ways to approach cancer:
"Well, to me cancer is a verb and not a noun. You're cancering, it's something the body does and not that the body gets. And so that philosophy needs a very different way of approaching disease, and it means changing the system in addition to trying to target the cancer."
One way is to approach treatment holistically. Agus points to a trial that gave premenopausal women with breast cancer a bone-building drug. The drug didn't target the cancer, yet it reduced recurrence by 40 percent because breast cancer metastasizes in bone.
Another method is psychosocial oncology. In this relatively new field, the practitioners' goal is to enhance the quality of life for cancer patients through mental health care as a part of physical care.
Living with cancer
Cancer death rates in the United States by cancer type, male and female, age standardized.
Scientists have learned a lot about cancer, but there remains much we don't know. Does that mean we should despair for the future? Quite the contrary. Thanks to the knowledge accumulated by scientists, we have much to be hopeful for.
Headlines are correct that the total number of new cancer cases and deaths continue to increase. However, the rates of cancer diagnoses and death have declined year after year. This is because absolute numbers don't account for metrics like population growth and increased life expectancy. In fact, the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer found that the cancer death rate for men, women, and children fell year after year between 1999 and 2016, as did cancer incident rates.
"Death in old age is inevitable. The job of science is to prevent unanticipated deaths in unanticipated times. I find that is a perfectly reasonable goal," said Mukerjee. "If you're saying to me that we will have a more profound, more proximal reconciliation with cancer in the next few decades, I think the answer is absolutely yes."
We may not be able to eradicate cancer as we did with diseases like smallpox and polio. But we're learning how to live with it more and more every day.
- Organic food reduces cancer risk by 25% - Big Think ›
- Great white shark genome reveals clues about cancer - Big Think ›
- New therapy turns cancer into fat to stop its spread - Big Think ›
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.