Cancer as evolution

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2010-02-15 15:04:32

I was watching Jamie Oliver's TED talk (I like what he's trying to do, but after looking around his website it seems like his motives are more financial and narcissistic than altruistic) and started thinking about cancer. All the various forms of cancer are, at the root, caused by bad cell mutations. So really, in a way, cancer can be viewed as failed micro-evolution.

My theory-under-development goes as follows: when exposed to certain stressful environments (the stress can be chemical, physical, mental, whatever) the body tries to adapt to relieve the stress. It does this by becoming more prone to genetic mutations. The mutations, just like in evolution, are random, and the vast majority of them fail and result in diseases like cancer. In some cases the mutations are neutral (e.g. benign tumors) and in a relatively tiny set of people have successful gain successful adaptations to their stressful environments and live on.

The theory above is really far too generic to be of much practical value, but it does point to two possible cancer-prevention techniques. One is obviously to prevent the stress from occurring in the first place. I think most of the traditional cancer prevention techniques (e.g. these) fall into that category. The other is to find out how the body manages to make itself more prone to genetic mutations, and stop that from happening. I assume the body does this by secreting some sort of chemical when under stress (e.g. cortisol) which makes DNA more vulnerable to mutations. Another interesting point is that any such chemical is likely to be distributed throughout the body, which means that stress on one part of the body could cause cancer in a completely different part of the body.

Assuming the above is true, I'm not sure exactly which is the more "correct" solution to the problem. On the one hand removing the stress prevents the root cause and generally has wide-ranging benefits. On the other hand, some of the stress factors are just a result of how the world has changed over the last few millenia, and in those cases the more correct solution might be to leave the (possibly desirable) stress in place and instead force our bodies to adapt to it.

Note to reader: biology was one of my least-favorite subjects in school (too much memorization for my liking), and I know just enough biology to be dangerous.

Posted by stak at 2011-07-29 09:20:20
Interesting and related TED talk by Eva Vertes
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