I recently published an article in The Observer (The Guardian’s Sunday paper) about the inevitability of cancer and how it stems from the very same thing that is also the source of all evolutionary innovation: mutations. Read the full article here.
The gist of my article is this quote from probably the most prolific cancer researcher of all time, Bob Weinberg:
If you live long enough, you will get cancer.
The inevitability of cancer has made itself painfully clear over the past century. As mortality from almost all other causes has plummeted, cancer rates have skyrocketed. While there is good reason to believe that some aspects of modern lifestyle and diet also contribute, the bulk of the rise in cancer is simply because we are no longer dying from so many other things.
In the early 1900s, the leading causes of natural death were, in order, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections, mostly cholera. Thanks to vaccines and other public health measures, these have largely been conquered in the developed world. Even deaths by accidents have been cut in half, per capita, over the last 100 years. We live longer and healthier lives than ever before.
Until we get cancer.
In the article, I then go on to discuss the basic cell division control mechanisms. Proto-oncogenes are responsible for driving the cell forward and tumor suppressors hold the cell back. The problem is that mutations are a constant scourge that happen randomly throughout the genomes of all cells. Eventually, the odds catch up with us and a mutation knocks out a tumor suppressor gene and then a subsequent mutation hyper-activates a proto-oncogene, turning it into a oncogene. This is a simplified view, of course, but the point is that mutations strike randomly and will eventually disable our cells’ ability to restrain themselves from dividing uncontrollably. They eventually become mindless zombies taking over the whole organ and spreading to other ones.
But mutations are also nature’s source of diversity and experimentation. They are the raw material with which natural selection fosters evolutionary innovation and adaptation. This has always been so, since the first time a single-cell organism tried sticking together with another cell, rather than going it all alone.
Innovation and cancer. You can’t have one without the other.
Also, this article was based on a short passage from my book, Human Errors.