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Rethinking Cancer

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Two years ago, NCI started enlisting the help of physical scientists to suss out news ways to fight cancer, Arizona State University physicist Paul Davies writes in the Guardian. Twelve research centers were created to aid in the effort — one of them run by Davies. Having no prior knowledge of cancer, Davies wondered how long cancer had plagued humanity, and found that "cancer is found in almost all multicellular organisms, suggesting its origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years." Oncologists think of cancer as a collection of cells gone awry, but Davies began to see cancer as an organized and systematically strategic disease, the behavior of which suggested that it is "the product of a long period of biological evolution," he says. Along with astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University, Davies developed a theory that "cancer tumors are a type of atavism that appears in the adult form when something disrupts the silencing of ancestral genes," and that the reason that cancer is so good at surviving is because "the ancient genetic toolkit active in the earliest stages of embryogenesis gets switched back on, re-activating the Proterozoic developmental plan for building cell colonies." If Davies and Lineweaver are correct, if cancer really is made up of "organized footsoldiers marching to the beat of an ancient drum, recapitulating a billion-year-old lifestyle," and not random cells degenerating into chaos, then there are implications for how cancer is treated and understanding the true nature of the disease.