Cancer Is "Life 1.1"

Question: What are the most promising \r\nideas you’ve encountered\r\nin your cancer research?

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Paul\r\nDavies:  Well there is\r\nsomething that interests me and it does look quite promising, and maybe \r\nI’m\r\ninflating its importance because I can understand it, but for most of \r\nthe\r\nhistory of biology the stuff of life well it used to be thought of some \r\nsort of\r\nmagic matter, but then about 100 years ago the cell became seen as a \r\nsort of\r\nbag of complex chemicals and so the chemical approach to cancer is of \r\ncourse\r\nwell known, chemotherapy.  About 60\r\nyears ago the informational side of life became apparent with the \r\ndiscovery of\r\nDNA and the genetic code and so on and so now we have genetics and\r\nbioinformatics and the whole sort of informational approach, genomics,\r\nproteomics and so on that follows from that, so we got two views of \r\ncancer\r\ncells, bag of chemicals and an information processing system, but there \r\nis a\r\nthird view.  A cancer cell is a\r\nphysical object.  It’s got\r\nproperties like everything else. \r\nIt’s got viscoelastic properties. \r\nIt’s got a mass.  It’s got a\r\nsize and a shape and an internal organization and it’s full of pumps and\r\n levers\r\nand chains and other paraphernalia that engineers and physicists are \r\nvery\r\nfamiliar with, so it’s a physical system and we would like is to \r\nintegrate all\r\nof these three points of view, but the physical part has been very much\r\nneglected, so for example, healthy cells and cancer cells respond very\r\ndramatically to things like forces and stresses in their immediate\r\nvicinity.  The micro-environment in\r\nwhich a cell grows can dramatically affect its gene expression, how it \r\nbehaves,\r\nwhat it does, and also its physical properties.  It\r\n can greatly change its elasticity, for example.  Cancer\r\n cells become usually much softer\r\nthan healthy cells and they get all bent out of shape and part of the \r\nreason we\r\ncan diagnose cancer is because they become deformed, swollen and funny \r\nshapes\r\nand funny shaped nuclei and so trying to understand the relationship \r\nbetween\r\nthe forces that act on these cells, and I’m talking about good old push \r\nand\r\npull Newtonian forces, nothing mysterious here and their chemical and \r\ngenetic\r\nresponse.  Trying to map those\r\ncorrelates I think is a really important way forward, so maybe we can \r\ncontrol\r\ncancer by controlling or manipulating the micro-environment.  

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You’ve got to get away from the idea cancer is a \r\ndisease to\r\nbe cured.  It’s not a disease\r\nreally.  It’s, the cancer cell is\r\nyour own body, your own cells, just misbehaving and going a bit wrong, \r\nand you\r\ndon’t have to cure cancer.  You\r\ndon’t have to get rid of all those cells. \r\nMost people have cancer cells swirling around inside them all the\r\n time\r\nand mostly they don’t do any harm, so what we want to do is prevent the \r\ncancer\r\nfrom gaining control.  We just want\r\nto keep it in check for long enough that people die of something else, \r\nto put\r\nit crudely, and maybe we can do that by controlling the \r\nmicroenvironment.  I should say that tumors, \r\nprimary\r\ntumors very rarely kill people and of course if you have a tumor \r\npressing on a\r\nnerve or something it could be problematic, but mostly tumors can be \r\nshrunk and\r\nthey can be kept in check or they can be removed surgically.  It’s when the cancer spreads around the\r\nbody, the metastatic process that things get grim.  If\r\n we can either prevent that metastatic process or prevent\r\nthe cells that are circulating around the body making a home in organs \r\nwhere\r\nthey don’t belong by controlling the physical properties of the tissues \r\nthat\r\nsurround them in some way to be worked out, then maybe this is a whole \r\nnew\r\napproach.  It’s not…  You \r\ndon’t zap the cancer with\r\nchemicals.  You don’t bombard them\r\nwith rays to make them die and you don’t… We’re not talking about gene \r\ntherapy\r\nwhere you try and insert some sort of gene to switch them off or \r\nsomething.  We’re talking about something much\r\nsimpler, about controlling the physics of the cells and their immediate\r\nenvironment in a way that will change their behavior and their gene \r\nexpression,\r\nso it’s really a whole new way of thinking about it and I’m really \r\nhopeful that\r\nwe’re going to learn a lot of interesting things.  I\r\n might say that this cancer research I think it’s really\r\nimportant to inform cancer not just from subjects like physics and \r\nchemistry,\r\nbut also from astrobiology. 

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Astrobiologists have spent a longtime thinking \r\nabout the\r\nnature of life and its evolutionary history, how it began, how it \r\nevolved over\r\ntime.  I think they have a lot to\r\ncontribute to the understanding of cancer, so earlier I was talking \r\nabout the\r\nHoly Grail of astrobiology is to find life 2.0.  That\r\n is a second form of life right here on Earth.  I \r\nthink cancer is life 1.1.  It’s like another form \r\nof life.  It’s closely related to healthy\r\nlife.  A healthy body is one form\r\nof life.  Cancer is in a way\r\nnature’s experiment with life. \r\nIt’s life almost as we know it, but modified in a certain way and\r\n I\r\nthink studying cancer it’s not a one way street.  Studying\r\n cancer could provide huge insights for\r\nastrobiologists into the nature of life itself.  Cancer\r\n biologists really are not, mostly are not very\r\ninterested in evolution.  They’re\r\nnot evolutionary biologists. They’re cancer biologists or cell \r\nbiologists, but\r\nwe really only understand the nature of life itself by looking at that \r\nlong\r\nevolutionary history.  Cancer is\r\nnot something confined to human beings. \r\nIt’s found in all multi cellular organisms where the adult cells\r\nproliferate, so it’s widespread in the biosphere.  It’s\r\n a phenomenon that is deeply related to the history of\r\nlife itself, so by studying cancer I think we can illuminate the history\r\n of\r\nlife itself and vice versa, so my thinking in running this cancer forum \r\nis to\r\njust get expertise from as many fields as we can, bring it to bear, \r\nhopefully\r\nsome very well defined problems in cancer biology and really try and \r\nnail them\r\nand try and move the subject along.

Recorded April 15, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

"You’ve got to get away from the idea cancer is a disease to be cured. ... Cancer is in a way nature’s experiment with life."

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