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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 ›
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
We are likely to see the first humans walk on Mars this decade.
- Space agencies have successfully sent three spacecraft to Mars this year.
- The independent missions occurred at around the same time because Earth and Mars were particularly close to each other last summer, providing an opportune time to launch.
- SpaceX says it hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2026, while the U.S. and China aim to land humans on the planet in the 2030s.
Spacecraft from three of the world's space agencies reached Mars this year.
In February, the United Arab Emirates' Hope space probe entered the Martian orbit, where it is studying the planet's weather cycles. That same month, NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars, where it will soon begin collecting rock samples that could contain signs of ancient life. And in May, China successfully landed its Zhurong rover on the Martian surface, becoming the second nation to ever do so.
All three missions launched in the summer of 2020. The timing was no coincidence: once every two years, Earth and Mars come especially close together because their orbits are "at opposition," which is when the Earth-Mars distance is smallest during the 780-day synodic period. It is an opportune window to send spacecraft to Mars.
The handful of spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface and atmosphere are scheduled to conduct their experiments for periods ranging from months to years. Some even plan to collect materials to return to Earth. For example, NASA's Perseverance will store its rock samples in protective tubes and leave them behind for a smaller "fetch rover" to pick up on a future mission.
Photo of Martian surface taken by the Perseverance roverNASA/JPL-Caltech
If all goes well, an Airbus spacecraft dubbed the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will carry the samples back to Earth in 2031. It would be the first time a space mission has returned Martian matter to Earth. But before the decade's end, space agencies have some other missions that aim to study the Red Planet.
Europe & Russia
NASA is not the only space agency aiming to find evidence of life on the Red Planet. In 2023, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency plan to land their Rosalind Franklin rover on the Martian surface, where it will drill into rock and analyze soil composition for signs of past — or possibly present — alien life.
The joint mission is part of a long-term Mars project that began in 2016. This second phase was initially planned for 2020, but due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the space agencies decided to postpone the launch to 2022.
"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
In 2022, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to send to Mars its TEREX lander, which will "precisely measure the amount of water molecules and oxygen molecules, and search for water resources and the possibility of life on Mars," JAXA wrote.
In 2024, JAXA also plans to launch a uniquely bold interplanetary mission that will involve sending a probe to orbit Mars, landing on the Martian moon Phobos, collecting surface samples, and then returning those samples to Earth in 2029. JAXA says the mission has two main objectives: (1) to investigate whether the Martian moons are captured asteroids or fragments that coalesced after a giant impact with Mars; and (2) to clarify the mechanisms controlling the surface evolution of the Martian moons and Mars.
Following the successful landing of its Zhurong rover this year, China released a roadmap of its plans for additional Mars voyages. The first is an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2030, with crewed missions planned for 2033, 2035, 2037, and 2041. As the International Space Station project is coming to a close, China is in the process of building its own space station; earlier this year it launched into orbit the first part of its station, which will take 10 more missions to assemble.
Elon Musk's California-based aerospace company has its sights on two Mars voyages: a cargo-only mission in 2022 and a human mission by 2026. The crewed mission would involve building a propellant depot and preparing a site for future crewed flights. Getting to Mars will first require an orbital test of SpaceX's Starship rocket, which the company hopes to conduct this year.
Regarding the long-term future of humans on the Red planet, Musk once told Ars Technica:
"I'll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining. But I'd like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars."
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization executed its first interplanetary trip with its Mars Orbiter Mission. It marked the first time an Asian nation reached Martian orbit and also the first time a nation successfully reached the Red planet on its maiden voyage. India has plans for a follow-up Mars Orbiter Mission 2, but it remains unclear when that will occur and what the mission will entail.
In February, the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation said the nation would only launch a Mars mission after Chandrayaan-3, India's upcoming mission to the Moon, which is expected to launch in 2022.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."