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Paul Davies

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, and bestselling author. He is Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, both[…]

“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.”

Question: What are the most promising rnideas you’ve encounteredrnin your cancer research?

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PaulrnDavies:  Well there isrnsomething that interests me and it does look quite promising, and maybe rnI’mrninflating its importance because I can understand it, but for most of rnthernhistory of biology the stuff of life well it used to be thought of some rnsort ofrnmagic matter, but then about 100 years ago the cell became seen as a rnsort ofrnbag of complex chemicals and so the chemical approach to cancer is of rncoursernwell known, chemotherapy.  About 60rnyears ago the informational side of life became apparent with the rndiscovery ofrnDNA and the genetic code and so on and so now we have genetics andrnbioinformatics and the whole sort of informational approach, genomics,rnproteomics and so on that follows from that, so we got two views of rncancerrncells, bag of chemicals and an information processing system, but there rnis arnthird view.  A cancer cell is arnphysical object.  It’s gotrnproperties like everything else. rnIt’s got viscoelastic properties. rnIt’s got a mass.  It’s got arnsize and a shape and an internal organization and it’s full of pumps andrn leversrnand chains and other paraphernalia that engineers and physicists are rnveryrnfamiliar with, so it’s a physical system and we would like is to rnintegrate allrnof these three points of view, but the physical part has been very muchrnneglected, so for example, healthy cells and cancer cells respond veryrndramatically to things like forces and stresses in their immediaternvicinity.  The micro-environment inrnwhich a cell grows can dramatically affect its gene expression, how it rnbehaves,rnwhat it does, and also its physical properties.  Itrn can greatly change its elasticity, for example.  Cancerrn cells become usually much softerrnthan healthy cells and they get all bent out of shape and part of the rnreason werncan diagnose cancer is because they become deformed, swollen and funny rnshapesrnand funny shaped nuclei and so trying to understand the relationship rnbetweenrnthe forces that act on these cells, and I’m talking about good old push rnandrnpull Newtonian forces, nothing mysterious here and their chemical and rngeneticrnresponse.  Trying to map thoserncorrelates I think is a really important way forward, so maybe we can rncontrolrncancer by controlling or manipulating the micro-environment.  

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You’ve got to get away from the idea cancer is a rndisease tornbe cured.  It’s not a diseasernreally.  It’s, the cancer cell isrnyour own body, your own cells, just misbehaving and going a bit wrong, rnand yourndon’t have to cure cancer.  Yourndon’t have to get rid of all those cells. rnMost people have cancer cells swirling around inside them all thern timernand mostly they don’t do any harm, so what we want to do is prevent the rncancerrnfrom gaining control.  We just wantrnto keep it in check for long enough that people die of something else, rnto putrnit crudely, and maybe we can do that by controlling the rnmicroenvironment.  I should say that tumors, rnprimaryrntumors very rarely kill people and of course if you have a tumor rnpressing on arnnerve or something it could be problematic, but mostly tumors can be rnshrunk andrnthey can be kept in check or they can be removed surgically.  It’s when the cancer spreads around thernbody, the metastatic process that things get grim.  Ifrn we can either prevent that metastatic process or preventrnthe cells that are circulating around the body making a home in organs rnwherernthey don’t belong by controlling the physical properties of the tissues rnthatrnsurround them in some way to be worked out, then maybe this is a whole rnnewrnapproach.  It’s not…  You rndon’t zap the cancer withrnchemicals.  You don’t bombard themrnwith rays to make them die and you don’t… We’re not talking about gene rntherapyrnwhere you try and insert some sort of gene to switch them off or rnsomething.  We’re talking about something muchrnsimpler, about controlling the physics of the cells and their immediaternenvironment in a way that will change their behavior and their gene rnexpression,rnso it’s really a whole new way of thinking about it and I’m really rnhopeful thatrnwe’re going to learn a lot of interesting things.  Irn might say that this cancer research I think it’s reallyrnimportant to inform cancer not just from subjects like physics and rnchemistry,rnbut also from astrobiology. 

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Astrobiologists have spent a longtime thinking rnabout thernnature of life and its evolutionary history, how it began, how it rnevolved overrntime.  I think they have a lot torncontribute to the understanding of cancer, so earlier I was talking rnabout thernHoly Grail of astrobiology is to find life 2.0.  Thatrn is a second form of life right here on Earth.  I rnthink cancer is life 1.1.  It’s like another form rnof life.  It’s closely related to healthyrnlife.  A healthy body is one formrnof life.  Cancer is in a wayrnnature’s experiment with life. rnIt’s life almost as we know it, but modified in a certain way andrn Irnthink studying cancer it’s not a one way street.  Studyingrn cancer could provide huge insights forrnastrobiologists into the nature of life itself.  Cancerrn biologists really are not, mostly are not veryrninterested in evolution.  They’rernnot evolutionary biologists. They’re cancer biologists or cell rnbiologists, butrnwe really only understand the nature of life itself by looking at that rnlongrnevolutionary history.  Cancer isrnnot something confined to human beings. rnIt’s found in all multi cellular organisms where the adult cellsrnproliferate, so it’s widespread in the biosphere.  It’srn a phenomenon that is deeply related to the history ofrnlife itself, so by studying cancer I think we can illuminate the historyrn ofrnlife itself and vice versa, so my thinking in running this cancer forum rnis tornjust get expertise from as many fields as we can, bring it to bear, rnhopefullyrnsome very well defined problems in cancer biology and really try and rnnail themrnand try and move the subject along.

Recorded April 15, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allen