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Cancer Is An Evolutionary Mechanism To 'Autocorrect' Our Gene Pool, Suggests Paper (sciencealert.com) 262

schwit1 quotes a report from ScienceAlert: Two scientists have come up with a depressing new hypothesis that attempts to explain why cancer is so hard to stop. Maybe, they suggest, cancer's not working against us. Maybe the disease is actually an evolutionary 'final checkpoint' that stops faulty DNA from being passed down to the next generation. To be clear, this is just a hypothesis. It hasn't been tested experimentally, and, more importantly, no one is suggesting that anyone should die of cancer. In fact, it's quite the opposite -- the researchers say that this line of thinking could help us to better understand the disease, and come up with more effective treatment strategies, like immunotherapy, even if a cure might not be possible. So let's step back a second here, because why are our bodies trying to kill us? The idea behind the paper is based on the fact that, in the healthy body, there are a whole range of inbuilt safeguards, or 'checkpoints,' that stop DNA mutations from being passed onto new cells. One of the most important of these checkpoints is apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Whenever DNA is damaged and can't be fixed, cells are marked for apoptosis, and are quickly digested by the immune system -- effectively 'swallowing' the problem. No mess, no fuss. But the new hypothesis suggests that when apoptosis -- and the other safeguards -- don't work like they're supposed to, cancer just might be the final 'checkpoint' that steps in and gets rid of the rogue cells before their DNA can be passed on... by, uh, killing us, and removing our genetic material from the gene pool.
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Cancer Is An Evolutionary Mechanism To 'Autocorrect' Our Gene Pool, Suggests Paper

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  • by ktakki ( 64573 ) on Friday June 17, 2016 @11:33PM (#52341499) Homepage Journal

    Ducking cancer.

    • Funny, but ironic. Autocorrect took a bad word, made it good, and broke the meaning in your words.

      It always struck me as strange when I hear that cancer cells don't really die. It's as if cancer cells are evolution working to fix one problem (cell death), and creating another (cells not functioning). I wonder if one day some cancerous cells will evolve to function. Imagine having a cancer in your lungs that efficiently pass oxygen, or a brain tumor that functions like brain matter. It's our bodies trying
      • by swalve ( 1980968 )
        That already happens. Many cancers will secrete hormones and neurotransmitters. They just do it in an uncontrolled fashion.
        • It tends to be that the more dangerous cancers are more fully functional. For example, being telomerase positive.

        • I am not an expert, so I was speaking in general terms. I meant functional as the cell it replaced, where the cancer is indistinguishable from the original save for its immortality.
          • by Hylandr ( 813770 )

            An evolutionary cancer that gives everyone super regenerative capabilities...

            Please continue with this plotline.

      • Re: Autocorrect? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @08:16AM (#52342539) Homepage

        We have evidence that ordinary cells have a finite number of divisions due to telomeres, but we also know there's an enzyme called telomerase that can extend them. This remains active in egg and sperm cells so we can continue to go on as a species forever and for normal life spans there's enough divisions in ordinary cells. In the lab, we've extended normal cells' lifetime way past their ordinary limit with telomerase. So why don't we have immortal cells by default? It's probably a fail safe, if a cell starts reproducing extremely fast without working around this limit it'll fizzle and become little more than a harmless lump.

        There's some indications that as we push for 100+ year lifespans we might be running out of divisions leading to among other things a weaker immune system because we lack white blood cells. It might be that we will develop telomere extension therapy [the-scientist.com] to give us a few more regenerations (hello Dr. Who), but as you can probably tell the main problem today is that cells start dividing like crazy, not that they stop dividing. And if we made all cells immortal with genetic manipulation, all it'd take is one cell short circuiting the reproduction speed to cause cancer and kill the host. So if we want natural immortality we need to find a way to stop that first or we'll all die of cancer instead of aging.

      • Cancer creeps up on us where we do the most damage. Smoke a cigarette? Damage to lungs, make cells immortal. Irradiate the skin in tanning beds? Damage to skin cells, make skin immortal. Eat terrible diet? Stomach or colon cancer, make cells immortal. Maybe our bodies just havnt figured out how to make the immortal cells function.

        While your hypothesis serves the "all of your illness are belong to you" outlook, where people have been convinced that skipping sunscreen and getting 1 sunburn will kill them, way too much cancer is genetically driven.

        As well, there is a big gaping hole in the scientists hypothesis. Most cancer occurs well beyond the childbearing and child raising years. So if it is an "autocorrect "function that improves the genetic stock of a species, it is a really crappy one.

    • That's why I always turn autocorect off. Maybe I'll make a misstake or two, but at least I won't get cancer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 17, 2016 @11:37PM (#52341511)

    of course these 'defective' genes get passed-on.. people usually have their kids before they get cancer. the only exception being the unfortunate kids who get sick young.

    • by mlheur ( 212082 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @12:23AM (#52341655)

      I came to say the same thing; generally speaking the genes are being passed on before cancer takes its toll. I might be convinced that it's somehow earth's method of population control, that if lifespans are shortened so the overall population is more manageable or something along those lines; but not in any shape or form of stopping "faulty DNA from being passed down to the next generation".

      • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @06:56AM (#52342415) Homepage

        I might be convinced that it's somehow earth's method of population control, that if lifespans are shortened so the overall population is more manageable or something along those lines;

        Doesn't really work that way, if people reproduce at 30 and die at 50 or 100 or 200 that only adds a constant factor to the total population. It might lead to one-time "fill-up" effects where new children are born and old people die later because of longer lifespan adjusting that factor, but the only long term control on population is the reproduction rate. And during reproductive growth the young outnumber the old simply because there's more in this generation than in the last.

        This is why people are no longer so extremely worried about population explosion, birth rates are way down and trending down but due to an aging population and advances in healthcare we will become closer to 10 billion. Europe and North America is below replacement fertility but still growing because of this, Asia and Latin American spot on, Oceania slightly above and then there's Africa which is still way high but below the world average from 1950-1970.

        High reproduction is also related to extreme poverty, basically if you need many children to support you when you grow older it is "necessary" to have many. Sure most people still like to have kids but only a few and not a whole bunch. China and India seem to be pulling people out of extreme poverty quite quick, so I think they're moving into "safer" territory there. Africa is again challenging, you have countries like Nigera [worldometers.info] still in explosive growth and GDP per capita barely [tradingeconomics.com] increasing, only 60% of the population is even literate.

        That said, they're seeing a communications revolution [pewglobal.org] in the last decade in Africa, from almost nobody having a cell phone almost everyone has one, smartphone penetration is low but not absent. I think that'll have a big effect on education and literacy but it'll take a few decades to really show net results. With the exception of certain retards in the Middle East that want to bring us back to the Dark Ages, things are actually progressing quite well. A bit worried about mass surveillance and authoritarian states, but not overpopulation and lack of basic necessities.

      • by epine ( 68316 )

        I came to say the same thing; generally speaking the genes are being passed on before cancer takes its toll.

        Takes its toll?

        2016 Fort McMurray wildfire [wikipedia.org]

        On May 1, 2016, the wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta. On May 3, it swept through the community, destroying approximately 2,400 homes and buildings and forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Albertan history.

        By May 1st your genes are toxic. No toll.

        By May 3rd your home burns down. Toll.

        Edge Master Class 2010: W. DANIEL HILLIS ON "CA [edge.org]

    • I agree. They see that cancer develops only when too many mutations build up in individual cells, which causes all the safety mechanisms to fail. So many mechanisms have evolved to stop these cells that are out of control. And they conclude that evolution wants them to kill us when they are out of control?
      This misses so many points. Though I am too lazy to check if TFA explains their thought process.
    • of course these 'defective' genes get passed-on.. people usually have their kids before they get cancer.

      Dropped in to say the same thing, found your post to agree with instead.

      Cancer mostly happens to older people. Past child-bearing years. So the genes were passed on long before the cancer could act to remove the bad genes from the gene pool.

      IOW, stupid hypothesis.

  • Old People (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ann Coulter ( 614889 ) on Friday June 17, 2016 @11:37PM (#52341513) Journal

    How does that explain post-menopausal cancers and cancer being more prevalent in individuals who are past their reproductive prime?

    • Re:Old People (Score:4, Insightful)

      by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @12:50AM (#52341729) Homepage

      Evolution explains cancers past reproductive prime, good enough to breed, good enough to survive, that's just the way it is. Being the best does not mean survival, the low numbers and random chance guarantee that, numbers are just against it (when you are in the minority, low numbers means, insect bites, random predators, infections and clumsiness, takes all equally and so low numbers increases the odds of disappearance of traits, no matter how positive. Evolution just demands those least able to reproduce die out, this then shifts the average and the species evolves. Significant mutation tends to require a vacancy in the localised ecology to survive. something that allows low numbers to reproduce quickly. So cancers tend to occur post prime reproductive age because it makes little difference. Of course that does not take into account lead addled fuckwits toxifying our environment and giving cancers to younger persons than would be normal, that is also evolution, an entire species dying out due to, hmm, greed driven stupidity.

    • by mjm1231 ( 751545 )

      Post-menopausal doesn't enter into it. The human female develops all the ova she will have available for reproduction by around the 20th week of gestation. I.e., before she is born. (I imagine to the Catholic church, aborting a female fetus is like killing two generations at once.)

      Evolution, for the most part, doesn't give a shit what happens to you after 40.

  • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Friday June 17, 2016 @11:40PM (#52341529) Homepage

    Most cancers occur in later (post childbearing) years? This is according to the American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/acs/grou... [cancer.org]

    I think it's always good to look at an problem from different perspectives and while thinking of cancer as an evolutionary protection against passing down defective genes is interesting, I'm not sure that it's a valid hypothesis.

    • by bidule ( 173941 )

      Erm, exactly.

      As a so-called "final checkpoint" it fail utterly. It's like a 70 years old trying to win a Darwin Award in front of his grand-children.

    • by dohzer ( 867770 )

      Would it really matter if the system stays active AFTER child bearing years if it does its job during those years correctly? The only negative I can think of is that you might not have as many helpers and teachers and carers.

  • by Tony Isaac ( 1301187 ) on Friday June 17, 2016 @11:43PM (#52341537) Homepage

    Calling cancer a "checkpoint" suggests that it has a purpose. This in turn suggests a Designer. Evolution, on the other hand, suggests that life is simply a survival of the fittest in a sea of random chance. Are these scientists suggesting that they now believe evolution is driven by purpose?

    • by Touvan ( 868256 )

      Evolutionary traits have some pretty clear purposes. The way we grow old and die evolved. It's easy to say there is no purpose to life in a philosophical way, and maybe that's true, but it's also easy to identify the purpose for so many evolved traits.

      Evolution is random chance through random mutation, followed by natural selection. Selection is even purposeful in creatures that have brains.

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      No, they're using 'purpose' in the sense of an adaptive function.

      Just like they always have. It's never caused confusion before, at least not for people acting in good faith.

  • As many have pointed out, if this were true, it would have to overwhelmingly affect the young, not the old. The opposite must be true: cancer exists because people died of everything else before cancer could begin to cause significant problems. Now we've mostly cured or mitigated all those other causes, cancer can happen because it's never previously been subjected to evolutionary pressure.
    • by Touvan ( 868256 )

      That's ridiculous. Older people have had a much longer period of time to have their genes mutated than young people.

      The hypothesis doesn't say it's selecting a trait or gene (intelligently or otherwise), it's saying when a crap random mutation happens in some single cell, and the normal mitigating factors to deal with the broken cell fail, the last fail safe is to kill the whole colony/organism to prevent the spread of that broken gene through the herd. I can't even see why that's controversial, it makes se

      • by Megane ( 129182 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @07:26AM (#52342457) Homepage

        If most cancers happen past reproductive age, why is there any need to "prevent" the spread of genes that won't be spread anyhow? And most forms of cancer are due to random mutations in individual cells, which won't change the genes in sperm/eggs. The few cancers that are due to genetic susceptibility (such as some forms of breast cancer) still get passed on anyhow. The hypothesis is so easily refuted that it isn't even funny.

        What GP post says should be obvious. We get cancer specifically because there is no evolutionary pressure after reproduction for us to not get it.

      • when a crap random mutation happens in some single cell, and the normal mitigating factors to deal with the broken cell fail, the last fail safe is to kill the whole colony/organism to prevent the spread of that broken gene through the herd.

        First, the broken gene isn't going anywhere unless it happens to be in your reproductive track. Second, if the reason the gene is "broken" is that it causes cancer, and the reason it causes cancer is to filter out "broken" genes, it would seem that a population without

  • As others have pointed out the idea is flawed as it would require death to occur before childbearing. But would it not be evolutionarily advantageous to have a 'self-destruct' mechanism that deploys after having children when food and other resources might be scarce? Live just long enough to bear and raise children, but then die and cease consuming resources, leaving more for your offspring? If resources are rich, stress on the individual is low and cancer may be avoided. If resources are low and stress o
    • by Nemyst ( 1383049 )
      Problem with that is that there is evidence that the opposite effect actually happens: cancer incidence could be reduced significantly by restricting caloric intake. This conclusion comes from the Okinawa centenarian study [okicent.org] which is looking at the unusually healthy and long living population of Okinawa.
  • ... it makes you turn orange.

  • I'm refusing treatment for anything other than skin cancer.

    No thanks. Quality of life and burning cash reserves are both big deals to me.

    My mother's body was so far gone she couldn't even donate it to science like she wanted to. All they could take were her eyes (she had a cataract fixed in one, but not the other).

    • After watching my mother die from untreated cancer, I can assure you that you will have no quality of life by refusing treatment.

    • What in the civilized world, does burning cash reserves have to do with having cancer, or any other illness?
  • But the new hypothesis suggests that when apoptosis -- and the other safeguards -- don't work like they're supposed to, cancer just might be the final 'checkpoint' that steps in and gets rid of the rogue cells before their DNA can be passed on... by, uh, killing us, and removing our genetic material from the gene pool.

    Couldn't the exact same argument be made about suicide?

  • by BrendaEM ( 871664 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @12:35AM (#52341697) Homepage

    What a miraculous poisonous world we have made for ourselves.

  • Many cancer tumors are caused by viruses, so no, this theory is not quite it.
  • If cancer is autocorrect, it's very buggy and broken, as it most often doesn't correct the message until after it's already been sent. I could buy this idea if cancer killed most of its victims before they were able to procreate, but that's simply not the case.
  • The hypothesis is just plain stupid and take its roots in the idea the body or an intelligent design is making decisions about the ADN. This is a syncretism of two opposite ideas. The evoution is not intelligent and is not making conscious decisions, otherwise it is creationism and intelligent design. No wonder the hypothesis is not experimentally verified, it is flawn.
  • What a BS... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Saturday June 18, 2016 @01:34AM (#52341839)
    Cancer is basically a result of faulty DNA copying - it happens when multiple anti-cancer systems fail in a cell. That's it. Ascribing it some kind of a purpose is pure teleological fallacy. Stuff doesn't need to happen "for a reason".
  • Cancer happens in cells that generally aren't germ-line cells, that is apart from testicular and ovarian cancers. (and many of those are stromal cells, not germ-line)

    There's no evolutionary advantage in killing someone with bowel cancer. Those faulty genes wouldn't be passed on. It just doesn't make sense.

  • If cancer is designed to clean the gene pool of defects, it's failing, because cancer attacks middle-aged and old people, AFTER their genes have already been passed along. I might accept this for childhood cancers that MIGHT terminate that genetic sequence. But most 40+ year olds have already had children if they were going to.

  • Smoking, chemical exposure and sunlight?

  • The claim is not tenable. Evolution can filter out deleterious mutations that affect the ability to reproduce. Mutations that happen after the body loses ability to bear or sire babies will not be filtered out. This is the blind side of evolution. Once reproduction stops evolution does not care whether you die of heart disease or cancer or osteoporosis or get eaten by the lions.

    Mutations that enhance the ability to make/sire babies in the short term but are actually deleterious in the long term will be pr

    • The claim is not tenable. Evolution can filter out deleterious mutations that affect the ability to reproduce. Mutations that happen after the body loses ability to bear or sire babies will not be filtered out. .

      That is the best point made on this topic. Cancers are by far more common late in life, after reproductive years are pretty much over. An evolutionary change mechanism would need to occur earlier in life.

      And, btw, since we are living longer, we'll see more cancer cases.

  • "...cancer just might be the final 'checkpoint' that steps in and gets rid of the rogue cells before their DNA can be passed on..."

    So why do the majority of cancers strike after one's childbearing years?

  • I had heard a theory some time ago that a perfectly healthy human body should not get cancer. We poison not only our environment but our food supply, which makes it rather unavoidable in many cases, and also rather impossible to validate that theory unless we move to another planet, or live in a bubble.

    That said, our societies, governments, and even our planet is rather reliant on the current death toll, so solving this particular issue for the human population to reach the next billion plateau may ultimat

    • I had heard a theory some time ago that a perfectly healthy human body should not get cancer.

      Since there is not, and never will be, a perfectly healthy human body in existence, we won't be able to test that theory.

    • what nonsense, people are living longer now than ever. The benefit of using "those poisons" far outweigh the negatives.
      The big risk factor for cancer? aging. being 65 or over.

      And what is this stupidity about the mostly molten rock called Earth having opinion about humans? If you think people are so bad, kill yourself. We won't miss you.

      • what nonsense, people are living longer now than ever. The benefit of using "those poisons" far outweigh the negatives. The big risk factor for cancer? aging. being 65 or over.

        And what is this stupidity about the mostly molten rock called Earth having opinion about humans? If you think people are so bad, kill yourself. We won't miss you.

        People are living longer because of medical advancements such as vaccines and antibiotics. Otherwise, we would still be dying from getting a scratch infected as humans were 150 years ago. This does not dismiss the poisons that have been introduced into society (artificial sugars, HFCS, etc.) that contribute to many medical conditions, with the most obvious one being the obesity epidemic. As I pointed out, we're in no hurry to cure ourselves of these man-made problems, because of the massive profits and j

        • so the benefits outweigh the negatives, as I said.

          man is free to use the resources of earth as he sees fit, nothing immoral about it.

          Earth is a non-living giant rock with extremely thin layer of biosphere on it. The biosphere isn't a single organism and doesn't act like one. Your stupid romantic greenie bullshit doesn't correspond to reality.

          • so the benefits outweigh the negatives, as I said.

            man is free to use the resources of earth as he sees fit, nothing immoral about it.

            Earth is a non-living giant rock with extremely thin layer of biosphere on it. The biosphere isn't a single organism and doesn't act like one. Your stupid romantic greenie bullshit doesn't correspond to reality.

            Speaking of bullshit, perhaps you review history about the people of Pompeii to see how "non-living" our planet is. The inhabitants were all killed by a volcano (Mount Vesuvius)

            Or perhaps you should go interview the survivors of New Orleans about our "biosphere" that took 1800 lives in 2005 due to a hurricane (Katrina)

            That "mostly molten" state you speak of took over 200,000 lives in 2004 when an earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis.

            The ozone layer around our planet that used to be consistent in prote

    • If you were to ask Mother Earth what she thinks, her answer is simple. Humans are the cancer.

      If we go by Gaia hypothesis then humans are simply "Mother Earth" finally developing a central nervous system, which is currently in the process of booting up. While it's chaotic and unpleasant the alternative is Earth getting scorched by the Sun as it slowly runs out of nuclear fuel. So how about knocking out this melodramatic "humans are cancer" meme and treating this era as what it is: Earth's akward teenage yea

      • If you were to ask Mother Earth what she thinks, her answer is simple. Humans are the cancer.

        If we go by Gaia hypothesis then humans are simply "Mother Earth" finally developing a central nervous system, which is currently in the process of booting up. While it's chaotic and unpleasant the alternative is Earth getting scorched by the Sun as it slowly runs out of nuclear fuel. So how about knocking out this melodramatic "humans are cancer" meme and treating this era as what it is: Earth's akward teenage years?

        In 2004, an earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that killed over 200,000 people. I suppose we'll just label that "growing pains".

        In the meantime, humans are getting scorched from the damage they caused to the ozone layer. I would point out the evidence as to how we are a cancer when flying over the most populated cities on the planet, if I could see the fucking thing through all the man-made smog hovering over it.

        It's not hard to find evidence that the Earth is going through cycles. Cycles that las

  • Interesting theory, but can't possibly work this way. Why? Because in order for this trait to benefit organism and its offspring one has to die and stop reproducing. This cuts your reproductive fitness by 100%, so no amount of benefit short of immortality would make up for such drawback.
  • ... the backspace key.
  • Given that most cancers develop after a person's childbearing years.

  • The mutated DNA doesn't get passed along to descendants, unless it's in the gametes or their precursor cells.
  • Nah, saying, "Hold my beer and watch this," and getting killed in the process is nature's way of thinning the herd. Sadly, we have a monstrous tort system that's feeding the desire to save people from themselves only to breed more stupid people. And the tort bar ensures that they get lots of money for being stupid.

  • This hypothesis doesn't make much sense. In evolutionary terms passing on "faulty" genes is its own punishment. There's really no mechanism I can imagine that would select for cancer causing genes. I could see it if the mechanism was very ancient, from the time when cells were more colony than single organism.
  • This article seems to assume that there's some guiding philosophy beyond evolution. Nope, it's just random chance and selection. Mutations happen, and sometimes they kill the host (usually they get weeded by the immune system).

    Another problem with this article is that it seems to say that "cancer" is a single disease. There are lots and lots of different cancers, so saying that "cancer" is some kind of unified mechanism is bizarre. There's not a lot of relationship between lung cancer and leukemia, exc

  • My thought is that cancer at its core is a bit error that is disabling apoptosis (cell suicide in response to its neighbors telling it to). Once a cell ignores apoptosis, all bets are off as to what that cell will do. It's free to reuse any genetic code that's available just like a virus can.

    Consider that metastasis, the migration of cancer cells, is how we all got our start. After we were conceived, the fertilized egg migrated from a free floating organism in the fallopian tubes to attach itself to the ut

    • My thought is that cancer at its core is a bit error that is disabling apoptosis (cell suicide in response to its neighbors telling it to).

      That's true for several dozen types of cancer - maybe 3 to 5% of the total. Most apoptosis is a cell destroying itself (by flooding itself with poisonous destructive oxy--gen processing chemicals from the mitochondria) in response to internal cues, not due to interaction with neighbors. Sometimes it's a "quorum" decision as you suggest, but that's relatively rare AIUI.

  • So basically our race and species, which society tells us we should care about over ourselves (you have to wonder why), is more important than our lives.

    Anyway it can't be correct that cancer is needed to improve the gene pool. In fact eliminating anything from the gene pool a bad idea. Eliminating cells is fine because they are clones mostly. Apoptosis occurs in cells of which there are a trillion in duplicate. Ok let's say for example and hypothetically, someone (not me) may have a gene for trolling on sl

    • Anyway this is a moot point, we have the technology now to edit and fix bad genes.

      We have tools to do it. Whether we have enough knowledge to do it safely, particularly since biochemistry is an extremely complex network, is a different, but probably more important question.

  • At this point most people already passed on their DNA. No use "checkpointing" after that moment.

  • Has cancer ever come from a precursor to an egg or sperm cells? In women at least all egg cells have already been produced by the time they are born.

    Cancer occurs through out the body in cells which do not propagate to future generations.

    At best you can have evolutionary pressure which kills people predisposed to developing terminal cancer. In other words they have a flawed immune system with trouble naturally identifying and eliminating certain cancers. Basically this would be a birth defect of ones cancer

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