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 ›
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Credit: Airspeeder<p>To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a <a href="https://airspeeder.com/news/2020/9/7/airspeeder-worlds-first-flying-electric-car-racing-series-partners-with-cyber-protection-leader-acronis-34g4k" target="_blank">blog post</a>.</p>
Credit: Airspeeder<p>Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like <a href="https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2020-01-07/hyundai-and-uber-announce-evtol-air-taxi-partnership" target="_blank">Uber, Hyundai</a>, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a <a href="https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/autonomous-aircraft" target="_blank">2019 report</a> from Morgan Stanley.</p><p>Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.</p>
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
From cryonics to time travel, here are some of the (highly speculative) methods that might someday be used to bring people back to life.
- Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
- The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
- Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.
Immortality and identity<p>The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."</p><p>Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be <em>you? </em>Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?</p><p>If you believe that your copy is not <em>you</em>, that implies you believe there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, your "informational identity" does not constitute your true identity.</p><p>In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.</p><p>It's no matter: The researchers say resurrection, in some form, should be possible in either scenario.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If no 'soul' exist[s], resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul[s] exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."</p>
Potential resurrection methods<p>Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to most speculative.<br></p><p>The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination, and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. The researchers noted that there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism.</p><p>Other methods get far stranger. For example, one method includes super-intelligent AI that uses a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere#:~:text=A%20Dyson%20sphere%20is%20a,percentage%20of%20its%20power%20output." target="_blank">Dyson sphere</a> to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.</p>
Turchin<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."</p><p>Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.</p><p>How? Sending tiny robots back in time.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being[s] without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."</p>
Pixabay<p>The paper <a href="https://www.academia.edu/36998733/Classification_of_the_approaches_to_the_technological_resurrection" target="_blank">goes on to outline some more resurrection methods</a>, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens, and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: God exists and one day he resurrects us. </p><p>In short, it's all extremely speculative.</p><p>But the aim of the paper was to catalogue known potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the <a href="http://immortality-roadmap.com/" target="_blank">Immortality Roadmap</a>, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.</p><p>Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some modern people to survive long enough to see it happen. </p><p>Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects — all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.</p>But odds are you're not interested. Although Turchin and other scientists are bent on finding ways to avoid death and extend life indefinitely, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/16/dying-still-taboo-subject-poll" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">surveys</a> <a href="https://quillette.com/2018/03/02/would-you-opt-for-immortality/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">repeatedly</a> <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutesvanity-fair-poll-the-afterlife/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">show</a> that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.