Two astrophysicists, Paul Davies and Charlie Lineweaver have proposed a new theory on the origins of cancer. In essence, they have proposed that cancer stems from an evolutionary protective mechanism tracing back billions of years. “Cancer is not a random bunch of selfish rogue cells behaving badly, but a highly-efficient pre-programmed response to stress, honed by a long period of evolution,” claims Davies.”1
The theory is best articulated in a paper in the journal Physical Biology.2 Davies and Lineweaver propose that cancer is not really an aberration, but rather an expression of an ancient ”toolkit”, that was fundamental to cellular organisms billions of years ago. “We hypothesize that cancer is an atavistic condition that occurs when genetic or epigenetic malfunction unlocks an ancient “toolkit” of pre-existing adaptations, re-establishing the dominance of an earlier layer of genes that controlled loose-knit colonies of only partially differentiated cells, similar to tumors”. Ostensibly they have proposed that rather than cancer being an abnormal process resulting from mutations, it is really a reversion to a prehistoric mechanism that is a normal part of all cells, albeit usually in a dormant state.“The new theory predicts that as cancer progresses through more and more malignant stages, it will express genes that are more deeply conserved among multicellular organisms, and so are in some sense more ancient.”4
Davies explains the theory, in part, by drawing upon a computer analogy. “…cancer is like Windows defaulting to ‘safe mode’ after suffering an insult of some sort.”
The scientists’ hypothesis explains, to a certain extent, why cancer has remained such a riddle and as well, why it is so difficult to treat. “It is because cancer is the Metazoan 1.0 default option that it is relatively easy to start and hard to stop. Cancer can be triggered in a wide variety of ways, but once it becomes established it is extremely hard to reverse”.2
Davies and Lineweaver are theoretical physicists and cosmologists; not your typical cancer researchers. Interestingly, Davies is the Director of Arizona State University’s Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology. Lineweaver is a professor at Australia National University. If their theories take hold, it is certainly a testimony to the concepts that we need to promote interdisciplinarity in science.
If true, their theory could revolutionize the way we fundamentally think about cancer. Such a revolutionary approach could unleash new approaches to cancer investigation and treatment.
If you have any thoughts about theories of cancer, respond to this blog… or better yet, please stop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.
- Davies, PCW and Lineweaver CH, Cancer as Metazoa 1.0: taping genes of ancient ancestors. Phys Biol. 2011 February; 8(1): 015001.