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Feb 13 2011

Is cancer just cells “rebooted into safe mode”?

An interesting theory about cancer’s prominence in mammals (save naked mole rats of course):

The new theory, published in the journal Physical Biology, has been put forward by two leading figures in the world of cosmology and astrobiology: Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University; and Charles Lineweaver, from the Australian National University.

In the paper, they suggest that a close look at cancer shows similarities with early forms of multicellular life.

“‘Advanced’ metazoan life of the form we now know, i.e. organisms with cell specialization and organ differentiation, was preceded by colonies of eukaryotic cells in which cellular cooperation was fairly rudimentary, consisting of networks of adhering cells exchanging information chemically, and forming self-organized assemblages with only a moderate division of labor,” they write.

According to Lineweaver, this suggests that cancer is an atavism, or an evolutionary throwback.

It’s certainly possible that this is the case, but my understanding was that the part that gets switched off in a cancerous cell is the part that tells it that it’s supposed to undergo apoptosis (e.g., die) under certain conditions — such as age, or cellular crowding. My layman’s understanding is that outside the genes that tell cells to die, it’s well possible that the mutated cell could have just about every other function still operating — and that that’s what makes HeLa cell lines (the undying and ever-growing cancerous cells taken from Henrietta Lacks) such a good analog for humans in biological testing. This could of course be wrong. And if it turns out cancer is really just your cell, running on older fallback code because some “off codon” didn’t get processed and so the code didn’t skip ahead to the next chunk, that means quite a bit evolutionarily, especially since so many mammals share that code line. In theory, with better technology, it may well be possible to eliminate the old code from our codebase, ridding humanity of cancer for good.

Of course, certain coders might be best told to stay out of the code base on that particular project. Gods forbid the people behind Windows ME touch our source.

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