In search of the simple: untangling the tangled complexity of cancer

basics Sep 01, 2018

We humans are complex. The more we discover, the more we realize there’s yet more to discover. Fritjof Capra, an Austrian-born American physicist, systems theorist and deep ecologist, said in his 1996 book, The Web of Life (Anchor Books, New York, USA: 1996, pp.4-138):

“The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.”

Nowhere is this statement more evident than in our pursuit of finding a cure for cancer: a complex web of interconnected and interdependent problems.

 

It’s nearly 50 years since Richard Nixon declared his “war on cancer”, and yes, our understanding of the disease has grown exponentially in that time and survival rates have improved significantly, but we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the complexities found within an individual tumour,...

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Cancer and dinosaurs (yes, really!)

basics Sep 01, 2018

If you thought cancer was a relatively new disease, you’re not alone – most people assume it’s an affliction of the modern age, but what few people realize is that it’s been around since prehistoric times.

In this short post, we’re going to travel back in time and chart the historic evidence for the existence of cancer since before humans roamed this earth, and key milestones in our understanding of this complex set of diseases.

80 million years ago

The earliest evidence of the existence of cancer comes from dinosaur bone fossils from this period that show possible evidence of containing cancerous cells.

3000 BC

Evidence of cancer was found in the remains of Egyptian mummies dating back to this period.

1600 BC

Cases of human cancer are recorded in Egyptian papyruses, including descriptions of their treatments. This invariably meant cutting out the tumor with a knife or burning them with red-hot irons (remember, they had no anaesthetic at this time!)....

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5 myths about cancer busted (and how our subconscious biases don't help)

basics Sep 01, 2018

The news is full of shock stories and fascinating “facts” about the latest thing that causes or prevents cancer, and sometimes it can be hard to know what to believe. After all, surely these stories are grounded in evidence-based science?

Well…yes and no…

Let me explain…

As a scientist, I adhere to something called “the scientific method” and within that I try to take in all the evidence available to me at the time to make an impartial judgement call on what the experimental data is showing me. However, as a scientist, I’m also human – just like everyone else in the field – and we are not immune to our own subconscious biases. One of the biggest pitfalls any scientist might find themselves unwittingly falling into is something psychologists call “confirmation bias”. That is to say, we humans look for facts and evidence that back up what we want to see.

So, let’s say in my research endeavors I’ve...

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What is cancer?

basics Sep 01, 2018

In 2012, there were over 160,000 cancer-related deaths in the UK. This accounted for over a quarter of all deaths at that time. Globally, a staggering 8 million people die of cancer each year. In 2011, £521 million was spent on cancer research in the UK, yet this deadly disease continues to claim the lives of so many victims. In 2017, an estimated $147.3 billion was spent on cancer care in the US alone, and in future years, costs are projected to grow as the population ages and the prevalence of cancer increases.

So, what exactly is cancer, and why is it so hard to eradicate? Broadly speaking, cancer is a genetic disorder insofar as it is caused by mutations that give cancer cells a survival advantage over normal healthy cells that share the same environment.

Darwinian survival of the fittest

These mutations can be inherited at birth, or can arise over time as a result of the daily insults we expose our bodies to: UV rays from the sun, cigarette smoke, fatty foods, processed...

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