Is cancer ancient?

Paul Davies has written some good books down the years. He’s an inspiring writer. I noticed this comment piece in the Guardian. My first impulse: Why did they get an astrophysicist to write about cancer? Google found another similar article from about 18 months ago, and there are others online.

Superficially fascinating, and the ideas are certainly unusual. But what’s the background? Is there anything behind it? Paul Davies has co-authored a position paper, in a physics journal, brim-full with metaphor and assertion. Both Guardian articles promote this work. The central theme is that the National Cancer Institute have funded Davies and colleagues, and they propose that cancer is ancient, and is a regression to lost programs from a simpler reign of life.

I’m not a cancer biologist but quite a lot of what Davies writes (in the published paper) seems simplistic. Ancient genes are involved in cancer. Yes, and in most of biology. Isn’t it weird that “rogue” cancer cells apparently cooperate. Wow, that never happens in other tissues. Mutations can’t help a tumour to thrive. For example:

But—and we wish to stress this point—such mutations are ineffective, over somatic time scales, at evolving any truly new adaptive features.

Oh yeah? Amongst countless others:

Spiotto, M., Reth, M. and Schreiber, H. Genetic changes occurring in established tumors rapidly stimulate new antibody responses. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA,100:5425-30, 2003.

Going back to the Davies and Lineweaver article, several weak paradoxes are set up (tumours are too “lucky” to be profiting from rapid evolution, metastasis should cost fitness) and batted about. In the end, it all goes rather soft:

We do not claim that internal Darwinism is irrelevant to the progression of neoplasms. Rather, we assert that atavistic transformations are a relatively rare part of normal Darwinian evolution but that they play the dominant role in the progression of cancer.

An “atavistic transformation” is the activation of an ancient program. Of course, no measurements, no quantitation, no reference to any real experiment. Just a guess. At least they were good enough to admit as much. Naturally, a nuanced picture is a bit much to give to readers of the Guardian. I wonder how much of this is Davies, and how much is the subediting?

I should be grateful that there was no lobbying for a Nobel Prize in quantum biology this time. But it’s hard to get away from the notion that again, physics is treating biology as a spherical cow. The NCI has boldly engaged physicists to think the unthinkable about cancer. This funding is a likely a mere shard of the total NCI purse, so no great worry. There are quite a few projects, and a quick scan suggests some are pretty neat. They’ll have a seminar about it in the good old Masur Auditorium in December (boy, I saw some good talks there). Some great speakers are scheduled. Sadly, it looks like Paul Davies wasn’t available.


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