Q&A: The Cancer Tradeoff

Physicist-turned-oncologist Robert Austin argues that cancer is a natural consequence of our rapid evolution.

By | April 3, 2013

Princeton physicist Robert AustinCOURTESY OF ROBERT AUSTINCancer mortality rates have, on average, not budged for the past 40 years, despite billions of dollars in annual research expenditures. Looking for fresh insights into cancer research, the National Institutes for Health in 2009 launched 12 physical science oncology centers at universities around the United States. The funders hope cancer research, which has benefited from tools made by physicists, can also benefit from physicists’ unique perspective on cancer as a physical system.

Among the directors of these centers, Princeton University’s Robert Austin holds perhaps the most controversial perspectives on cancer. Austin, a trained physicist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, believes we might have cancer for a reason. It’s a tradeoff, he says, for the rapid evolution our species has leveraged to become the dominant force on the planet. He also suggests that cancer might act as a form of global population control, possibly serving to increase species fitness.

One of the main challenges facing cancer researchers, Austin said, is a tumor’s ability to evolve resistance to chemotherapy. He thinks this trait shares many characteristics with antibiotic resistance among bacteria. To that end, his lab builds specially designed microenvironments to study how antibiotic resistance evolves.

Following Austin’s symposium talk at the February 2013 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, The Scientist chatted with him—hustling through the city’s snowy streets on the way to the train station—about the war on cancer and his unsettling views.

The Scientist: What is cancer?

Robert Austin: I have two answers. One is it may be due to a fundamental, general instability in any system which has mutations going on where you’re reproducing yourself. There’s a fundamental danger there. It’s the risk that the system is willing to accept in order to evolve.

It may also be plan B in the sense that we’re supposed to age and die. It’s very important that we die. If you take good care of yourself so the normal ways of death don’t happen, the system will go ahead and turn something else on to make sure that individual ceases.

TS: So, cancer is a way of killing off individuals to support survival of the species, like programmed cell death kills off certain cells within the body to support survival of the organism?

RA: Yeah, it’s apoptosis on a large scale. That’s why the immune system gives it a pass. In fact, the body might even fight your attempts to reverse the process, because it actually wants it to happen.

TS: Are you saying that cancer is ultimately good for us?

RA: Yeah, on a species level. We all know that to evolve, we must have mutations. Cancer is more prevalent in humans, because that is the mechanism driving our rapid evolution.

TS: What triggers the transition from tumor to metastasis?

RA: I figure it’s a stress-related thing. In other words, I think the tumor slowly [comes to be in] a more stressful environment. The idea is that these tumors’ cells decide to break out and move somewhere else.

Ninety percent of all cancer deaths are due to metastatic transitions. You can usually live with most tumors. They won’t kill you necessarily, but when they metastasize, they definitely kill you.

TS: What does all this say for whether we will ever find a cure for cancer?

RA: We should stop using the word “cure.” It’s the wrong word to use. We don’t want to cure cancer. We have to have cancer [to evolve]. The hope is that you can keep cancer under control for a long enough time to die from something else without a huge loss of quality of life.

TS: Should we just give up on chemotherapy?

RA: No, no. I don’t think we should give up on chemo, per se. We just do it in a simpleminded way right now. We give patients as much as they can tolerate. Instead of trying to kill the cancer, we [should] try to maintain it.

In other words, maybe we should feed the tumor instead of starving it. Avastin was this anti-angiogenesis drug, meant to starve a tumor by cutting off its blood supply. That drug has failed miserably. These cells simply evolved the ability to survive on less blood. They actually ended up more dangerous than if they hadn’t given any drug at all. So, by starving them, we actually created an absolute monster.

TS: So, we should try to keep the tumor happy?

RA: Yeah. Keep it happy and quiet. Can we learn to do that? I think that’s not impossible.

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Avatar of: Truthbetold


Posts: 1

April 4, 2013

I thought the first question was what is cancer. Not what is your OPINION about why it happens. Either way I think it always best to state the obvious, keep it simple and common sense should always prevail. 

     In 1931 Dr. Otto Warburg won the Nobel Peace Prize for his research done in 1923 which proved cancer can not live in an alkaline environment. So clearly were taking about too much acidity in the body resulting in toxicity. Where did you learn what you know about nutrition?  The answer would be the same place your parents learned , their parents and their parents learned from;  the information supplied to the teachers and schools as well as the doctors and hospitals from the National Dairy Council.  Things like eat meat for iron, drink milk for calcium.  These were good sources of protein making for stronger bones and teeth. Right? Wrong as it turns out even their own studies have proven that that is just simply not the case.  Cooked meat actually causes anemia. Drinking milk actually leads to osteoporosis.   These are some of the most acidic things you can put into your body. This causes your body to have to leach minerals from the bones and organs in order to neutralize the acidity.  Which tells us that minerals equate to alkalinity in the body. We also know that increasing oxygen levels creates alkalinity in the body.  It's been shown time and time again that just going to a raw diet organic foods and increasing your mineral intake creating an overall alkaline pH in the body can prevent cancer can eliminate cancer as well as all other forms of disease in the body.  Is important to note that emotions also play a role in the pH of our body. Negative emotions create acidity in the body; anger is actually more acidic than poisonous snake venom.  Numbers of doctors have had huge success in helping patients eliminate cancer in their body simply by addressing emotional issues. 

     When you look at the amount of money going into cancer research and for the period of time it has been doing so with the lack of progress you would really be crazy not to get suspicious and do some research.  When you find that the National Dairy Council is responsible for all of the education with regard to health and nutrition you should be alarmed to say the least.  When the research clearly shows that eating cooked meat (cooked/ processed food) drinking pasteurized milk is at the very heart of the underlying cause of cancer.  The pictures pretty clear we created the monster.   I assure you the monster here is not cancer.  Cancer is actually your friend it is actually our bodies very creative way of trying to survive. The monster is the fact that we do not have a wellness program here in America what we have is a sickness program with a bunch of people just not getting it. No one has to die from cancer or even get it! 

www.totalhealthmasteryusa.com- Check it out! Don't live in fear of disease. Get your answers here. Two years ago I was dying. Now, I'm not only living but my organs are regenerating themselves.   It is possible.  Get the toxins out and the essential nutrients in. The body is designed to heal. 

Avatar of: sillyguy


Posts: 1

April 4, 2013

Austin's hypothesis rests on the assumption of a (much) higher incidence of cancer in humans compared to our mamalian brethern.  This is probably not the case.  The human incidence of cancer of all types in Contra Costa and Alemeda counties in CA is below that of dogs and above that of cats.  The article describing this is available on the web and is fascinating.

Calif Med. 1967 December; 107(6): 481–489.

Avatar of: buguy


Posts: 1

April 4, 2013

I guess based on the last 2 comments dogs must be angrier than cats.

April 4, 2013

Well, Bob Austin's ideas are -- the usual Bob Austin ideas when it comes to biology.  He's a very creative thinker, we must acknowledge that, but he thinks in terms of "principles" and can't really waste his time on facts or details.  Are we, Homo sapiens,really that much more quantitatively "evolved" than other animals?  Perhaps he believes that we are (and I'm not an evolutionary biologist so I would not express a "personal opinion" about available facts and their interpretations since I don't know those facts).  But in my experience, other mammals are every bit as prone to tumors and blood cancers as humans are.  Even the ancient Rabbis knew this -- as part of the Kashrut process, the carcasses of kosher-slaughtered mammals are supposed to be carefully (and medically appropriately) examined for indications of diseases, including tumors.  I don't know if the kashrut process of looking for tumors extends to chickens, but it should, since avians are rather prone to cancers also (not just Rous sarcoma or Marek's disease, but plenty of others that are well-known to poultry scientists).  

I would guess that this notion, that we are more prone to cancers than other species because we are more highly evolved than other species, is really based on chauvinism -- or perhaps egotism?  

Avatar of: mlerman


Posts: 71

April 4, 2013

Last year I've written in NATURE on a similar expose

In my young years, in Moscow (USSR) I was attending a weekly seminar ran by the great mathematician, I. Gelfand, who was trying to save his son who was dying of leukemia. Since then I was always reading on efforts in the field of cancer by physicists and mathematicians. My sad conclusion was that the results despite the effort were meager. Probably the enormous complexity of cancer (or the other popular topic, brain and intelligence) is not amenable to minds programmed to solve other type of questions

Avatar of: Curculio


Posts: 61

April 4, 2013

The type of group selection advanced by  V. C. Wynne-Edwards and discussed above was discredited decades ago.

Avatar of: SFCA


Posts: 1

April 4, 2013

I agree completely with his theory that cancer is mostly just an unhelpful downside of a very helpful upside for the species - homo sapiens can evolve quickly due to a high error rate in replication. The same error rate that helps us evolve quickly causes cancer for many, usually well after they reproduce. I am sure in the future this will be the most widely accepted explanation for why cancer has not been wiped out by evolutionary forces. 

There must be an interesting way to look across species and compare cancer rates and draw some interesting conclusions. Species in environments that don't change as much or where species migration doesn't change the environment as much might have a lower need to evolve quickly and probably have more accurate replication and lower cancer rates. Would have to adjust everything for replication rate, lifespan, etc. to compare properly. 

Avatar of: Paul R Walsh

Paul R Walsh

Posts: 8

April 4, 2013


Bob Austin seems to miss an obvious (albeit theoretical) method of preserving our ability to evolve while minimizing cancer.   For evolution to occur, mutations need occur only in germ line cells.   For cancer to arise, mutations occur (predominantly) in somatic cells.  

So, let's permit mutations to continue amidst germ line cells, thereby permitting evolution to continue.   Meanwhile, let's minimize mutations in somatic cells, thereby reducing the risk of cancer.  

We can minimize mutations in somatic cells by improving the fidelity of DNA polymerization.   And, we can further reduce somatic mutations by improving the fidelity of DNA repair.   (The improved repair methods would address mismatches resulting from errant DNA polymerization or damage from exogenous sources such as radiation or oncogenic compounds.)

Gene therapy might work.   It's not easy.  But, in theory, it would simultaneous address many types of cancer.  Somebody call Precision Biosciences and Sangamo; ask them to get going on this.

Avatar of: Truthmonger


Posts: 3

April 4, 2013

John Beard, D,Sc., in his 1911 book, The Enzyme Treatment of Cancer and Its Scientific Basis, reveals that vertebrate reproduction includes alternation of generations similar to that found in plants. In his embryonic research he identifies the origin of cancer and its cure.

At conception, the union of sperm and egg (sexual reproduction) produces the trophoblast (the asexual generation), which divides by mitoses. At 256 cells, one cell separates becoming the embryo (asexual reproduction).

The trophoblast implants in the uterus and continues to grow in an invasive manner (similar to cancer) providing nutrients for the embryo until the embryo (and its placental outgrowth) develops a functioning pancreas. The pancreatic enzymes of the fetus and mother stop the growth of the trophoblast.

Beard’s research revealed the invasive growth similarities of the trophoblast and cancer. He found that pancreatic enzymes would stop cancer growth just as they stop the growth of the trophoblast.

The Enzyme Treatment of Cancer and Its Scientific Basis by John Beard D.Sc. can be read online at:     http://vitamincfoundation.org/beard/      This original 1911 book can also be downloaded in HTML format from many bit torrent sites.

Dr.  Nicholas Gonzalez in New York, N.Y. uses pancreatic enzymes to treat cancers.

Avatar of: tonsils2012


Posts: 1

April 5, 2013

i do agree with what has mentioned that cancer cells are innate in the body and its just triggered by something that is why it multiplies very fast.


proper oral care

Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 92

April 6, 2013

During - First EMBO Conference on Centrosomes and Spindle Pole Bodies, 12-16 September 2008 Heidelberg, Germany - all scientists accepted that cancer means cells with more than three pairs of centriolles, caused by centriolles axis misorientation suited by abnormal cells multiplication. Metastasis means cancer cell evolution.

Sometimes, chemotherapy and magnetotherapy produce cancer to another no infected body cells. That can give us the possible answer what is the cancer's origin: infected foods and non-conform magnetic fields. Many new books spoke about EMF (electromagnetic field) influence (Riadh W. Y. Habash - Electromagnetic fields and radiations, Human bio effects and safety - Marcel Dekker, Inc. 2007.)

Now, the artificial EMF is practically the same as the natural.

Our rapid evolution is based on our desire for comfort and for other useful or no useful pleasures that introduce us to a new challenge.

As no useful food (tobacco, alcohol, and drugs) may produce cancer cell, no satisfied desire can change cell axis and can produce cancer cell.

ANPM Romanian nongovernmental organizations demonstrate that genetically modified maize can produce liver cancer in animals. It is normal not to see cancer evolution in animals because we sacrificed them for food. However, we can transfer cancer cell from plants to animals and to human, because not enough evolution of human mind (Bible, Daniel 7.4), as RetiredInBoyntonBeach specified about human egotisme.

Another possible cancer root can be no satisfaction and emotions that also play an important role in soul maladies, as Truthbetold specify, produced by the impossibility to reach a very high target.

Using all this data, I appreciate that Robert Austin has a well-oriented opinion to the cancer root.

As Truthbetold said, organs are regenerating themselves because the body is perfect designed for this job, but remember that cancer can reappears after 40-45 days from implant in the organs produced with stem cells (Yukiko Yamashita, University of Michigan)

In 2007, I developed the bio- magnetic soul theories that can quantum explain how EMF can determine the good or bad spindle pole body orientation: Mitochondrial Adam DNA data transmissions theory - ISBN 978-606-92107-1-0, added to Eve mtDNA theory.

Existed only in xiphoid process, the mitochondrial couple Adam mtDNA and Eve mtDNA wireless control desire, emotion, satisfaction and supervise the immunity, the cardiac pulse, the oogenesis and the spermatogenesis.

Avatar of: Chao_Revisited


Posts: 3

April 7, 2013

Playing with words. Fanciful thoughts.

When exactly does Cancer decide that the herd needs to be culled?

I have to echo similar reaction to this "article" as some of the commenters here, whether it is the words of the speaker, or the presentation form of the article writer. This article is more a sketch, train small talk.

I sometimes find myself really dismayed over the language used, even by prominent scientists when it comes to implying conscious causal reasoning on the part of systems & even symptoms!

The Wisdom of Self-Selecting Systems

Thinking on a species level, that cancer is good for the species speaks to the current good health of the speaker. It is a presumption of the speaker, then, to be outside of the ecosystem he analyzes. He, as a specie survives the construct.

Cancer, despite its inherent wisdom & duty, doesn't seem to show the grace of proper timing.

Avatar of: dzrosen13


Posts: 1

April 7, 2013

I have been saying and talking about this view of cancer FOR YEARS - may be he overheard me talking?? lol - Seriously, I truly believe these "micro-predators" are the only known predators in nature in the civilized world.  Nature is not going to allow us to solve all of her puzzles.  We will not be able to outpace diseases, viruses and other microorganisms that are struggling for their place on this planet too - track down and eliminate most, sure - but not all.  I think this is brilliant, and I would love to meet this man!  Brilliant.

April 7, 2013

I'm sorry, I realize this is a knee-jerk reaction but here it is:

I am a survivor of Non-Hogkins Lymphoma. I am 25. I got this cancer at 23. This doctor can't tell me that A. I was SUPPOSED to get this cancer so that I could die and kill off my family tree. 

B. My tumor was kept "happy and quiet" and it nearly suffocated me! It grew into the complete space of my chest cavity NOT SLOWLY, mind you, but in 3-4 months. Chemotherapy saved my life by shrinking my tumor and keeping my heart from failing completely. 

I am completely horrified that this man thinks that he can make sweeping comments and opinions about cancer. If other doctors hadn't made discoveries like Ritoxin, which helps chemo target only cancer cells, I probably wouldn't have survived. 

I am horrified.

Avatar of: clever


Posts: 1

April 7, 2013

You have finally learned the more advanced thought process but you are not being clever enough as it seems with the idea for evolution learn to use the mutation of cancer to strengthen or rather to fortify the body at will. That is the research needed, if you opinion holds weight. Your next logical step should not keeping it happy, but putting it to work.

Avatar of: atrichornis


Posts: 1

April 8, 2013

This is ridiculous: 

"Yeah, it’s apoptosis on a large scale. That’s why the immune system gives it a pass. In fact, the body might even fight your attempts to reverse the process, because it actually wants it to happen."

There is very good evidence that traits cannot evolve simply because they're good for the species. Traits only evolve if they're good for the individual that possesses them, or close relatives (how else could they pass on the genes that govern the trait)? Genes that promote the premature death of their organism quickly find themselves removed from the gene pool, unless they provide some other advantage to the individual that outweighs the costs.

As cancer is neither good for the individual or good for their family (unless you can tell me how losing a parent to cancer is likely to improve your life prospects), it seems very unlikely that there is any direct selection for being prone to cancer.

True, our genomic instability might speed up evolutionary rates, but we share this with many (most) other animals. As some previous comments have pointed out, the cancer rate in humans is probably not unusually high.

As far as I can tell, it's quite likely that cancer is the negative side of an evolutionary trade-off. It may well be nigh incurable. That doesn't mean we should embrace it as an crucial process for the health of the species.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

April 8, 2013


Wow. There is so much wrong with this it is hard to know where to begin. First off, shame on The Scientist for publishing such a ridiculous article. I’d be surprised that anyone who has studied cancer or treated cancer would consider this man an oncologist in even the most generous definition of the word. Listening to his opinion about cancer is kind of like listening to what a plumber has to say about heart disease. Well meaning, but with no knowledge of what he is talking about.

To start with, to say that cancer rates have been unchanged over the last 40 years is hogwash. While it is true that between 1960 and 1990 there was an increase in mortality due to cancer, since then there has been a significant drop in mortality in the US, Canada, UK, and most other comparable countries around the world. A simple web search will tell you this.

Second, I have no idea why anyone would claim that humans have a more rapid evolution than any other species on the planet. Please, show me some evidence to back up this claim.

Third, there is no such thing as “species fitness”. Fitness (in the evolutionary sense) is the contribution of the genes of an individual to the gene pool of the next generation. Fitness is only related to an individual, not a population or species.

Fourth, the statement “It’s very important that we die.” is, in a word, idiotic. Why is it important that we die? In order for it to be important for humans to die there would need to be a selective pressure that causes us to die, which is not the case. The current thinking on aging and death is that aging is caused by a breakdown of our body’s ability to repair itself. The loss in this ability to repair is due to a trade-off for reproduction and growth earlier in life. Aging and dying is, therefore, not driven by evolution. As the majority of people die after reproduction there is no selective pressure that would increase longevity as we have passed on our genes to the next generation. In terms of evolution it doesn’t matter when an individual dies as long as they have reproduced, therefore, how could it become important that we die?

Fifth, the idea that your body wants you to get cancer and die and that it “...fights your attempts to reverse the process...” is ludicrous. Cancer is a result of uncontrolled cell division caused by random mutations in DNA. If your body wanted you to die, why wouldn’t it induce a pathway that causes your heart to stop beating or your brain to eat itself instead of waiting until a random mutation causes a cancer?

Sixth, while there is such a thing a reciprocal altruism where individuals of a species will act for the good of a population over the good of themselves, the idea that we have evolved a mechanism to kill ourselves off after we have reproduced is, well, not possible. In order for a trait such as this to evolve, there needs to be a selective pressure. A selective pressure will only cause a change in subsequent generations (i.e., evolution) when they occur before reproduction, not after. Therefore, what happens to a human after reproduction cannot be considered to be due to evolution. This is when the majority of cancer occurs in humans, and therefore is not due to evolution.

Seventh, tell someone suffering the ravages of cancer that “We don’t want a cure for cancer.”, see what happens.

I would highly recommend that Dr. Austin invests some time and takes an introductory undergraduate course in evolution, or at the very least picks up a textbook. I would also recommend that The Scientist stick to interviewing scientists who know what they are talking about.

Avatar of: katjaboo


Posts: 1

April 8, 2013


I just finished an intense technical course on the immune system. Austin appears to know nothing about molecular biology or the immune system. "I think the tumor slowly comes to be in a more stressful environment. The idea is that these tumors’ cells decide to break out and move somewhere else." What a bunch of complete nonsense. Even if he is speaking figuratively for the sake of the lay reader, it's still utter hogwash.

What we have here is yet another doctor breaking out from mainstream medicine and science to promote his pseudoscientific ideas. If he isn't yet  promoting his own very special, proprietary, and expensive cure for cancer, don't worry, he will be soon.

Avatar of: Chao_Revisited


Posts: 3

April 9, 2013

Getting over-revved in response.

The idea that a quick conversation while waiting for a train is presented - is interesting. Whether to lash Robert Austin to words as though it was more than a sketch is about context.

I think there's some good discussion here, in this article - but it has to be seen in the context of off-the-cuff statements, not very many at that - made while waiting for a train.


There is no evidence for some of the opinions expressed & I would hope that the sketchy nature of the encounter was not intended to be more than good conversation & speculations. Waxing philosophical.

". . .the system will go ahead and turn something else on to make sure that individual ceases."

Cancer being good for us, on a species level --> does seems to smack a little of the inverse of "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" thinking if I be so bold to paraphrase & color those words with my own interpretation; so that what DOES kill you, makes the species stronger.

I think it would be a good conversation to have whether there is any evidence to believe that is more than an adage.  I see no global system that has decided to cull the species, nor a reason to believe cancer is its device to accomplish such a goal. Cancer has no inherent intelligence, nor is it an agent of intelligent thinking that I can see.

Please explain.






Avatar of: Steve H

Steve H

Posts: 4

April 10, 2013

This is ridiculous anthopomorphic pseudoscientific hogwash (not my first choice but let's keep it clean).  The man may or may not be a good physicist. but he knows nothing about biology, evolution or cancer.  So here's the deal - he shuts up about cancer and I won't hypothesize about the philosophical musings of black holes and their role in the in the evolution of the universe.

Does somebody at The Scientist even read this stuff before it's published?  From now on please stick to facts and leave the fantasy for more appropriate venues.

Avatar of: Katia


Posts: 4

April 12, 2013

I read this article because I believe there's a strong link between cancer and evolution, however was grossly disappointed with Austin's view. I love physics and the way of thinking, and a different prespective could be invaluable, but the crude straightforwardness just won't do in application to highly complex biological systems. After reading this, I think that maybe a physicist (or THE physicist) in biology is just that - a dilletante. Not only, as a commenter above said, group selection by V. C. Wynne-Edwards has been discredited decades ago. Cancer evolution probably hasn't even a lot to do with evolution on a discreet organism level, but rather that of a cell or population of cells, as the advantage a cancerous cell has compared to healthy cells in the body is its immortality, or switching off of senescence/ apoptosis. However, what's the actual evolutionary advantage of that immortality when the tumour outgrows and kills its host, unable to survive outside of one and without the possibility of being passed on to a new one? Once cancer develops mechanisms for transmissibility, then it's laughing (and we're crying..) There are already precedents of transmissible cancers, by the way: take the Tasmanian devil one for example. But fear not, it's not hopeless. Look up oncolytic virotherapy, kinda fighting fire with fire, it's looking up at the moment.

As to some of the commenters here, I cannot believe the childish blabber! The "alcaline body" myth is ridiculous http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/coral2.html And by now I think every schoolchild knows that the study linking GM corn with cancer in rodents has been falsified and withdrawn, I believe it was even in The Scientist's news not long ago.

Avatar of: Paul Marioni

Paul Marioni

Posts: 1

April 12, 2013

. I think there is a possibility that cancer is not a disease, but rather an evolutionary step in our cell structure. Think about it, the cancer cell is ten times bigger and stronger than our current cells. If we are ever to travel in space, and withstand high doses of radiation, we need a stronger cellular structure. We are poised on that edge. It’s just that it’s killing us while we learn to evolve. My friend Koji Matano put my theory on a web site. Four hundred and twenty nine people responded that I was full of it. One person said, “that’s worth thinking about”.

Avatar of: Katia


Posts: 4

April 12, 2013

oh and pardon me, I forgot to add that an invaluable lesson we can learn from cancer is the actual mechanisms of immortality. maybe we could eventually apply them to healthy cells/ organisms without the currently known side effects... nothing is impossible. immortality, anyone?

Avatar of: HMS


Posts: 1

April 15, 2013

I feel this is a really new and refreshing perspective on cancer. After reading all the comments, I thought many of them have been emotional and restrictive in thinking! Austin's opinioin or view or whatever one may call it may in fact lead to a new approach to manage cancer. As he said, we may have to think about 'managing cancer' than to destroy it with drugs that definitely have some side effects. 

Good that someone thought about cancer in a different way. He never suggested in any way that someone should die because of cancer, sacrificing for the evolution of Homo sapiens! 

Avatar of: FJScientist


Posts: 28

April 15, 2013

After seeing the 'physicist-turned-onocologist' subheading, I read the interview. I rapidly became mystified since clearly, Dr. Austin has little knowledge or understanding or background in the fundamentals of biology or medicine. And he certainly has no training in oncology (confirmed at his lab website) even though he is the Director of an NIH-supported oncology center.

It is not always bad when one conducts research in a field in which she/he has no formal training. I have on seldom occasion seen fresh perspectives introduced by such persons, although they always supply an inordinately large number of inanities since they are missing an entire field of knowledge. So we must read Dr. Austin's thoughts against this backdrop. Is he an uninformed naif whom we hope can come up with one, just one, large leap that others too deep in the field will have missed?

As a profession, we have to always wonder how best to identify out-of-the-box innovations. I usually see 'outsider inspirations' occur when an 'outsider' comes into a laboratory well-established in the field and starts asking questions. The important part of this is the dialogue. The outsider for the most part has a huge amount to learn from her/his colleagues who welcome discussions that may come up with questions about blindly followed assumptions in the field.

So, the questions that bounced around my head after reading this interview was "what is an NIH-supported 'physical oncology center' and 'is that the best method to bring in outside perspectives'. Because, for the most part, those outsiders serve best in initiating discussions and new research by those with more detailed knowledge of the field, my opinion is that it foolish to support such centers unless it is but one small well-integrated part of a larger cancer center.

That was somewhat confirmed for me with the snippets of Dr. Austin's interview highlighted by the writer (we all must recognize here that these few paragraphs selected by someone else is unlikely to be an accurate depiction of Dr. Austin). But, taken at face-value, the interview painted a picture of a woefully uninformed director of an NIH-supported Center. It made me wonder whether this experiment in 'physical oncology centers' should be discontinued at the next funding cycle, particularly in the the current support environment. I just hope that the peers who review these centers are oncologists and biologists.

Avatar of: JohnC


Posts: 13

April 28, 2013

I find the Austin discussion of human evolution in reltionship to cancer frequency weird in the extreme.

I  would like to discuss shortly an alternative viewpoint. What is particualrly noticeable in terms of molecular biology and longevity is that we have far  far less terminal transferase than animals with similar life expectancy. Terminal transferase is correlated with the lengths of the teleomers at the end of each chromosome and this is correlated directly with the cells ability to grow and divide. When the telomers are very very short you are vulnerable and unable to repair tissue damage and you die.  The dramatic discrepancy in this telomerase/life expectancy ration in humans is thought at least in part to be a result of human social structure and altruism in which the weak are protected from the harsh environment and where the weak are cared for by others. The evolutionary pressure on a species to remain healthy without cancer would tend to reduce cancer occurence up to an age where  the individuals have reached sexual maturity and can reproduce. At least as far as women are concerned we live on average a multiple of more than three times as long as this. Since we live much longer than earlier generations we must expect that cancer incidence increases. Both because with age our system becomes weaker in fighting imbalances, the immune response diminishes, etc. and we come to an age where there has been little evolutionary selection for cancer resistence.

In terms of the rate of evolution in man it is also interesting to note that as far as mankind is concerned a major souce of new mutations into the population is through mutated sperm from older men although tthis makes little difference in view of the number of mutations already present in the world population.

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