A Universal Cure for Cancer?

Does every type of cancer require its own individualized treatment, or might there be a universal cure? Scientists James Watson and Paul Davies suggest some new and unorthodox approaches to cancer treatment.

The conventional wisdom—or as James Watson puts it, “slogan”—in current cancer research is that different forms of cancer are genetically different, requiring a personalized therapy approach to each. Yet Watson, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, believes such thinking may be due for a change. Though the verdict is still out, he believes science will uncover features that all advanced cancers share—and that could yield a universal cure.

“It’s my hope,” he told Big Think in an interview last fall, “that whereas we know there are many different forms of cancer to start with, they all progress toward something similar, in a sense, similar to a stem cell, a differentiated stem cell. So that if you’re killed by prostate cancer, it may be not that different than…dying from lung cancer or a melanoma. That is, the bad cells have roughly the same biochemistry.… And so if we can kill one of the sort of terminal-stage cancers, we might be able to do all of it.”

Though his may be a minority view, Watson isn’t alone in seeking a universal—or unorthodox—approach to cancer treatment. Last spring cosmologist Paul Davies explained his role as part of a groundbreaking project that seeks to apply physics to cancer research. “A cancer cell is a physical object,” Davies explains. ”For example, healthy cells and cancer cells respond very dramatically to things like forces and stresses in their immediate vicinity…maybe we can control cancer by controlling or manipulating the microenvironment.” 

The goal of such research would be advanced therapy rather than a cure per se, as Davies explains in the clip below: 

Sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, the project actually synthesizes ideas across a number of scientific disciplines, including evolutionary mathematics, that have never been applied to this particular field. Like Watson, Davies holds out hope for broad solutions over more modest, cancer-specific therapies: “What we’re aiming for is the big breakthrough, the penicillin moment, which cancer research has never had.”

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