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Biotech Medicine Science

Cancer Resembles Life 1 Billion Years Ago 223

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-so-safe-mode dept.
An anonymous reader writes "What is cancer? It's not an invader; it's spawned from our own bodies. And it bears striking resemblance to early multicellular life from 1 billion years ago. This has led astrobiologists and cosmologists Paul Davies and Charlie Lineweaver to suggest that cancer is driven by primitive genes that govern cellular cooperation (abstract), and which kick in when our more recently evolved genes that keep them in check break down. So, far from being rogue cells that mutate out of control, cancers are actually cells that revert to a more ancient level of programming, like booting in Safe Mode. The good news is this means cancers have only finite variation. Once we figure out the ancient genes, we'll know how it works. It's unlikely to evolve any new defense mechanisms, meaning curing cancer might be not quite as mammoth a task as commonly thought."
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Cancer Resembles Life 1 Billion Years Ago

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  • giants (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Velex (120469) on Friday February 11, 2011 @09:38AM (#35173858) Journal

    It's unlikely to evolve any new defense mechanisms, meaning curing cancer might be not quite as mammoth a task as commonly thought.

    nanos gigantium humeris insidentes

  • Yeah Right. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Massacrifice (249974) on Friday February 11, 2011 @09:44AM (#35173932)

    Astrobiologists doing cancer "research"? Half of the submission is written as if they had cancer already nailed down, while the rest of it implies that they merely had this great idea, while looking at the stars after smoking some of the good stuff. If there are no experiments, hard results, conclusive evidence, well pfew, it's not news that matter. I make up a dozen theories like this per day.

    • by thijsh (910751)

      [...] they merely had this great idea, while looking at Stargate after smoking some of the good stuff.

      FTFY. They were probably discussing 'what if the ancient gene was real', and the rest followed naturally by means of said good stuff and some randomness... Indeed a fairly common conversation type for stoner-geeks. :)

      • I believe it would be a step in the right direction if any Astrobiologists, or possibly Geneticists were to work on a gene therapy that would repair the ends of the Chromosomes where gene damage most times occurs. I personally would love to see Cancer, DNA Viruses, and RNA Viruses cured on a 'Out Patient' basics.
    • Re:Yeah Right. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by radtea (464814) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:59AM (#35175142)

      they merely had this great idea, while looking at the stars after smoking some of the good stuff.

      Their entire "theory" boils down to this: "We think that the tumours that develop in cancer patients today take the same form as these simple cellular structures did more than a billion years ago,” he said. ("but we have no particular reason to believe that", he added quietly.)

      There is simply no basis for their claim other than "cars are a means of transportation, planes are a means of transportation, so maybe cars are planes after they've landed". I mean, "cancers are loose aggregations of cells, early metazooans were probably loose aggregations of cells, so maybe cancers are early metazooans resurfacing in your body."

      Everything we know about the detailed genetics of cancer--which is quite a lot--suggests this is nonsense. If this were the case we'd expect to see far more genetic similarity between cancers than we do, as the hypothesis implies ancient conserved mechanisms for which there is no sign in the genomics of cancer. Cancer is a diverse disease, and while we are making steady progress against it there are fundamental mechanisms that are still poorly understood because they are complicated. The role of various micro-RNAs in particular is only now becoming clear, for example.

      The fundamental complexity of the disease is exactly what you would expect if it metazooan life was pulling off a complex and delicate balancing act that can go wrong in multiple ways, and humans had been subject to intense selective pressure for longer lives due to the advantage to a social primate with both representational and operational intelligence of having a few grandparents around in your kin-group. Human cancers are ferociously complex compared to most other species, which is exactly what you would not expect based on this hypothesis that all cancers in all species are pretty much similar at root.

      Their "advice" to researchers to focus on what amount to tumour supressor genes would be important if this was 1990.

      The genius here is all marketing, not science. They have managed to get an idiotic idea that has zero utility to anyone working on the genetics of cancer quite widely disseminated. That's pretty clever. I only wish the scientists who are in the trenches doing detailed experimental investigations of actual cancer mechanisms were half as good at promoting their thankless and difficult work as these clowns are. Their hypothesis would make a great science fiction story. Unfortunately, that's not the way they've chosen to promote it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    booting in Safe Mode.

    Is it possible for you people to wipe your butts without using some half-assed, fallacious computer analogy? Is this all the bazaar has done for you?

    • by khallow (566160)
      Of course not. Maintenance of garbage collection capability is a key part of the daily control loop for any sentient humanoid program.
  • by La Gris (531858) <`ten.eduarion' `ta' `sirg.ael'> on Friday February 11, 2011 @09:47AM (#35173984) Homepage

    The summary look like curing cancer is a matter of very simple solution. I doubt this.

    Even if cancer behavior rely on primitive gene programming. There where billion years of incremental evolution build and re-factored over that, I firmly doubt it is a matter of turning on/off or stripping out some cytochrome block cancerous cells from forming/growing.

    • Of course. Didn't you see Piranha 3D? Modern life is no match for the prehistoric piranhas once they are released by an earthquake.
    • Re:not so easy (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Ponder Stibions (962426) <grantpe@gmail.com> on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:10AM (#35174318) Homepage

      This is exactly the problem: our genes are like Windows, they just keep adding stuff and patching up the old code, and never start fresh. You never know what you'll break by patching the latest issue...

      • Don't worry. We can cure cancer by injecting you with this Gene Patch. Wait... why are you turning blue?

      • Really, I wish it was even like any kind of modern code... even code from the Daily WTF.

        It's actually a mess of spaghetti code, where some gene works by misusing another gene in perverse ways. And one gene ends up controlling hair color, blood clotting, fight-or-flight response, _and_ sensitivity to pain and anesthetics. And some parts are both code and data (in as much as you can call a bit of DNA either.) And, I kid you not, you actually have at least one bit of self-modifying code in your immune system.

        (

    • The summary look like curing cancer is a matter of very simple solution. I doubt this.

      A small story:
      The king summoned all of his scientists and told them he had a great idea how to beat the kingdom's sea-ferring enemies. "I suggest," he said "that when our enemies come with their ships, we lower the sea level by a few meters. This way all their ships will crush on the sea floor. When we raise the sea level again, all of their soldiers will drawn and we will win."
      All the scientists said it was a great idea, but how the hell do you lower the sea level by a few meters?
      "I don't know," replied th

      • Lowering the seal level as a cure all? Impossible! what were they thinking. Now if he said "lower the taxes" then he would be talking. At present in America almost every one agrees, the panacea for whatever ails America is to lower the taxes.
    • by elrous0 (869638) *

      Besides, this hypothesis requires that you believe in evolution. As a firm believer that cancer was created by God on the 6th day, I can't accept that it will lead anywhere but to hell.

  • "It's unlikely to evolve any new defense mechanisms, meaning curing cancer might be not quite as mammoth a task as commonly thought."
    Gee since I just lost my mother to cancer last month and have lost way to many friends to it I have to say that this is the STUPIDEST, MOST ARROGANT statement I have read in a very long time.
    How long have we been trying to cure and prevent cancer? We have made a lot of progress to be sure but the task and effort passed mammoth decades ago.
    I welcome any news about improved trea

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:04AM (#35174248)

      The arrogance is not present in the original source: they present their hypothesis, outline how it can be tested, and explain its potential impact on cancer research. The hyperbole and hubris comes from the author of the summary and the article, not the scientists. They only write of "new reasons for optimism".

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        I am sure you are correct. That is why the title of my post was crappy summary as usual. Anyone educated and smart enough to be involved in this kind of work would probably be wise enough to make make such a stupid statement in writing.

      • They only write of "new reasons for optimism".

        Uh, no. They gave no experimental evidence. They propose a new, untestable theory, and say it gives "new reasons for optimism". I could say that tumors are made of blue ice cream and that gives "new reason for optimism". And, at least, my theory is falsifiable.

        These "researchers" have nothing that would give "new reason for optimism". Do they propose new treatments? New approaches to destroy cells? No. They are arrogant. And, it has nothing to do with t

    • by dr2chase (653338)
      And given all the other crazy interlocking defenses our bodies have evolved over the years, if it were "simple", random chance should have stumbled across it over time, and THAT would spread through the population because it confers a survival advantage for your family/tribe. If there is a silver bullet, it will be something so wacky or foreign that it is truly improbable, even given the long history of evolution and genetic roulette.
      • by c6gunner (950153)

        if it were "simple", random chance should have stumbled across it over time, and THAT would spread through the population because it confers a survival advantage for your family/tribe

        Not really. Cancer rarely occurs early in life. For most of human history, you would have died well before cancer had a chance to finish you off. Even now it mostly occurs late enough in life that it doesn't affect reproduction. Ergo, the evolutionary advantage would be weak-to-non-existent, meaning the mutations might have no better odds of spreading than what would be expected from pure chance.

        • by dr2chase (653338)
          That's why I said family/tribe. We live "too long" as is; I'm assuming that there's some advantage to having your grandparents kicking around.
    • The first step in curing Cancer, is cure ignorance. Easier said than done, but it's a start. I lost my mother to this truly evil form of death in 1994.
  • by toppavak (943659) on Friday February 11, 2011 @09:57AM (#35174104)

    The good news is this means cancers have only finite variation. Once we figure out the ancient genes, we'll know how it works. It's unlikely to evolve any new defense mechanisms, meaning curing cancer might be not quite as mammoth a task as commonly thought.

    We've already figured out how most cancer works. At a gross, generalized level you have oncogenes (genes responsible for driving growth) and tumor suppressor genes (genes responsible for regulating growth) when interrelated genes of both varieties break in a cell, it becomes a cancer. A detailed molecular understanding of how some cancers work have led to effective treatments (see: Imatinib [wikipedia.org], Tamoxifen [wikipedia.org] and Raloxifene [wikipedia.org]) but that's hardly been successfully translated to other cancers where the broken parts aren't as easily modulated. In fact, Raloxifene was developed specifically because Tamoxifen which inhibits an oncogene in breast tissue activated the same oncogene in uterine tissue. What 10 years of the human genome have taught us is that not all diseases are direct or simple breaks in genetic code and that not all diseases with known, simple breaks in the genetic code are as easily treatable as we might like.

    • FTA:

      What one cancer learns cannot be passed on to the next generation of cancers in other patients

      Of course not. That would be Lamarkism, like believing that if we cut off the cats tail, its future kittens will have no tail. That queery aside, what evidence is there for this conclusion about the complexity of combat?:

      The good news is that this means combating cancer is not necessarily as complex as if the cancers were rogue cells evolving new and novel defence mechanisms within the body.

      Even if their hypothesis is correct, that cancer involves the malfunctioning of a set of evolutionarily conserved genomic structures and processes, what evidence is there for concluding that combating cancer is not as going to be as complex as [something else we don't understand full

      • by oodaloop (1229816)
        There ARE Lamarkian mechanisms at work, such as retroviruses. Just because not all acquired characteristics, like scars and lost limbs, are not heritable, does not mean that none are. Mothers pass non-genetic material through the womb and through breast milk for instance.
        • Retroviruses can be endogenous or exogenous. But they aren't inherited if acquired exogenously unless acquired by a germ cell i.e. for e.g. an exogenous retrovirus that causes breast cancer won't be inherited.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:01AM (#35174176) Journal
    Cancer might resemble the kind of cells that eventually made the transition of prokaryotes to eukaryotes. But it is simplistic to say it is governed by just a few genes, so we should be able to handle it. Think about it, if these genes have escaped natural selection for 1 billion years, how hard it is going to be to fight them.

    Basically natural selection will be able to filter out any gene that affects the reproductive ability. Given the length of time, even extraordinarily minute differences will make a difference and eventually deleterious genes will be filtered out. But if some gene trades improved fitness at the reproductive stage for some serious cost to life at a later stage, that gene will never be filtered out. The extreme example is the trout that had traded it so much that it dies immediately after spawning. Its entire metabolism is structured to improve fitness before spawning to very serious inability to live after spawning.

    Even if these guys were right, and with modern science you are able to find that one gene whose loss of function causes cancer, and they are able to fix it, all it means is you will not die of cancer, but will die of other geriatric diseases. Some of them are painful, some of them are embarrassing. But the most heart wrenching ones are those that trap a dead brain in a functioning body or a functioning brain in a dying body.

    I wish science would concentrate on improving the quality of life when alive and allow both the body and the brain to die together painlessly.

    • by toppavak (943659)

      Cancer might resemble the kind of cells that eventually made the transition of prokaryotes to eukaryotes.

      A cancer cell is a cell that has no regulated growth control, in that fashion it resembles all single-celled life- prokaryote or eukaryote, but that's where the resemblance ends. Cancer is not some exotic type of cell, it's quite simply a cell which lost or broke one or more communication pathways that allow the cell itself or other cells in a multicellular organism to direct its growth and differentiation. No theory surrounding the evolution of eukaryotic cells has anything to do with the reason cancer ce

    • by Nadaka (224565)

      The problem with that assumption is that cancer is a condition that almost always affects organisms after their primary reproductive cycles have been completed. There are a few cancers that affect children and young adults but they are extremely rare.

    • by kemapa (733992) *

      Cancer might resemble the kind of cells that eventually made the transition of prokaryotes to eukaryotes. But it is simplistic to say it is governed by just a few genes, so we should be able to handle it. Think about it, if these genes have escaped natural selection for 1 billion years, how hard it is going to be to fight them.

      Up until very recently the vast majority of humans did not live long enough to see the onset of cancer, so natural selection didn't have a chance to play the part you're suggesting that it should/would have. Furthermore, most cancers occur later in life than when most humans reproduce (this was especially so prior to modern times). This prevents cancer from having the usual fitness detriment in relation to reproduction, providing an alternative explanation for why it hasn't been selected out.

      • by radtea (464814)

        This prevents cancer from having the usual fitness detriment in relation to reproduction, providing an alternative explanation for why it hasn't been selected out.

        It actually has been selected out to a great degree in humans, and this is one of the reasons why we live such astonishingly long lives. The average mammal lives about a billion of its own heartbeats. We live more than twice that.

        This is also what makes human cancers so hard to cure. Unlike rats, which will get cancer from a dirty look, the cancers that make it past our defenses are seriously nasty.

        Grandparents transmit culture, and having a few much older people in your kin group would be very signific

    • by NoSig (1919688)
      Old people die of X if they don't die of Y. The solution to that is to repair the underlying damage caused by aging so old people don't get frail in the first place. The solution is not just to accept aging as a good thing. If you didn't have to get old and frail, would you take a pill that inflicted you with the disease of aging? Yet younger people still get cancer, so we need a cure regardless.
  • by AC-x (735297) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:01AM (#35174178)

    It's a nice theory, but cancers aren't completely self sufficient. They need to form blood vessels to grow any larger than a pin head and early sponge-like organisms certainly didn't have those.

    http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/grow/how-a-cancer-gets-its-blood-supply [cancerhelp.org.uk]

    • by mapkinase (958129)

      This needs to be moderated up more.

      But:

      Agrobacterium tumafacians and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid cause the plant to grow abnormally to death
      Agrobacterium tumefaciens is an good example of a bacterium that induces tumors (http://biology.kenyon.edu/Microbial_Biorealm/bacteria/proteobacteria/agrobacterium/Agrobacterium.htm) or cancerous growth in plants. The mechanism of induction is the transfer of bacterial genes to plant cells via tumor inducing plasmid. Be careful working with them, they can even infect

    • by NoSig (1919688)
      Early sponge-like organisms depended on their environment for energy. In the human body blood is where the energy is at.
  • safe mode? (Score:5, Funny)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquar ... m ['l.c' in gap]> on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:10AM (#35174316) Homepage Journal

    given that this article postulates that cancer cells have apparently been the default mode of cellular division for perhaps billions of years, and personal computers have only been around for 30 years, it would be more appropriate to say you sometimes need to boot your computer into cancer mode. that's a more appropriate analogy

  • If cancer is what life was like a billion years ago, then we should not be spending so much time, money, and effort to kill it. By pandering to our self-centered focus of survival and self-preservation, we could be preventing the next race of beings from evolving natually.

    • (sarcasm) Blasphemy!!!!! Science once again comes up with another thing to test your faith! Cancer can't POSSIBLY be 1 Billion Years Old! The world is only a few thousand years old! (/sarcasm)
    • by jouassou (1854178)
      Yes, we might. After all, cancer has already evolved into species of it's own [wikipedia.org]...
  • by gov_coder (602374) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:18AM (#35174442) Homepage
    Life: the decision of approximately 4 billion cells to be 'you' for a while.

    Cancer: When some of the 4 billion cells decide to form a 'tea party'.
    • by Culture20 (968837)

      Life: the decision of approximately 4 billion cells to be 'you' for a while.

      Cancer: When some of the 4 billion cells decide to form a 'tea party'.

      Depressed Living Teddy Bear: "Why am I here?"
      Little girl: "For tea parties!"
      Bear, desperate: "Is that all there is?"
      -Supernatural

  • Cancer covers quite a bit of biological territory and not all cancers are created equal. This seams to trivialize just how diverse our bodies are and discounts its ability to adapt. I mean cancer at it's core is actually the bodies attempt to adapt to a situation that has gone awry. I read somewhere the body creates cancer cells every day of your life but the immune system takes care of it naturally. When someone gets cancer it is because the immune system didn't catch it and it was allowed to multiply.

  • by JustOK (667959) on Friday February 11, 2011 @10:37AM (#35174784) Journal

    Windows isn't a virus, it's a cancer.

  • I don't know about curing cancer but once we figure out the ancient genes we'll have access to all kinds of awesome technology. Let's get on this people!

  • This is certainly adds a new definition for the old term 'legacy code'.

  • It's more evolved than 4chan?

  • Cancer is (1) inability of the cell to keep sticking to the base + (2) inablity of the cell to not divide uncontrollably, both are closely related. If you have structured body of many eukaryotic cells you need your organs (2) to be contained and (1) not to mix

    Early eukaryots were monocellular, so they neither have a need (1) to contain the growth (2) to stick to the base. And that is the simplest behavior of the cell: it grows until third party puts a stop to it, and it does not stick to anything, because s

  • by neoform (551705)

    meaning curing cancer might be not quite as mammoth a task as commonly thought.

    It is when you realize that no pharma company actually wants to cure cancer...

  • Does Joe Flanigan know that he has cancer?

    • Well there was that one time he was bitten by a rather nasty bug, who knows what that exposed him to....

  • I thought Cancer was cured a lot time ago, and its the big pharmaceutical companies that have a conspiracy to keep it going for huge profits!

  • Cancer is the natural state of cells. Non-cancer is a state our bodies have achieved through intricate command-and-control mechanisms. We are a colony of trillion individual living cells all working under a social contract that has them all sworn to celebacy and pinning all their hopes and dreams on the success or failure of a few eggs and sperm fired off into the beyond. All it takes is a breakdown in one frustrated cellular rebel saying "enough of this, I'm doing my own thing!" and you have a cancer.

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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