New theory uncovers cancer's deep evolutionary roots

A new way to look at cancer—by tracing its deep evolutionary roots to the dawn of multicellularity more than a billion years ago—has been proposed by Paul Davies of Arizona State University's Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science in collaboration with Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University. If their theory is correct, it promises to transform the approach to cancer therapy, and to link the origin of cancer to the origin of life and the developmental processes of embryos.

Davies and Lineweaver are both and with experience in the field of astrobiology—the search for life beyond Earth. They turned to only recently, in part because of the creation at Arizona State University of the Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology. The Center is one of twelve established by the National Cancer Institute to encourage physical scientists to lend their insights into tackling cancer.

The new theory challenges the orthodox view that cancer develops anew in each host by a series of chance mutational accidents. Davies and Lineweaver claim that cancer is actually an organized and systematic response to some sort of stress or physical challenge. It might be triggered by a random accident, they say, but thereafter it more or less predictably unfolds.

Their view of cancer is outlined in the article "Exposing cancer's deep evolutionary roots," written by Davies. It appears in a special July issue of Physics World devoted to the physics of cancer.

"We envisage cancer as the execution of an ancient program pre-loaded into the genomes of all cells," says Davies, an Arizona State University Regents Professor. "It is rather like Windows defaulting to 'safe mode' after suffering an insult of some sort." As such, he describes cancer as a throwback to an ancestral phenotype.

The new theory predicts that as cancer progresses through more and more malignant stages, it will express genes that are more deeply conserved among multicellular organisms, and so are in some sense more ancient. Davies and Lineweaver are currently testing this prediction by comparing gene expression data from cancer biopsies with phylogenetic trees going back 1.6 billion years, with the help of Luis Cisneros, a postdoctoral researcher with Arizona State University's Beyond Center.

But if this is the case, then why hasn't evolution eliminated the ancient cancer subroutine?

"Because it fulfills absolutely crucial functions during the early stages of embryo development," Davies explains. "Genes that are active in the embryo and normally dormant thereafter are found to be switched back on in cancer. These same genes are the 'ancient' ones, deep in the tree of multicellular life."

The link with embryo development has been known to cancer biologists for a long time, says Davies, but the significance of this fact is rarely appreciated. If the new theory is correct, researchers should find that the more malignant stages of cancer will re-express genes from the earliest stages of embryogenesis. Davies adds that there is already some evidence for this in several experimental studies, including recent research at Harvard University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

"As cancer progresses through its various stages within a single organism, it should be like running the evolutionary and developmental arrows of time backward at high speed," says Davies.

This could provide clues to future treatments. For example, when life took the momentous step from single cells to multicellular assemblages, Earth had low levels of oxygen. Sure enough, cancer reverts to an ancient form of metabolism called fermentation, which can supply energy with little need for oxygen, although it requires lots of sugar.

Davies and Lineweaver predict that if cancer cells are saturated with oxygen but deprived of sugar, they will become more stressed than healthy cells, slowing them down or even killing them. ASU's Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, of which Davies is principal investigator, is planning a workshop in November to examine the clinical evidence for this.

"It is clear that some radically new thinking is needed," Davies states. "Like aging, cancer seems to be a deeply embedded part of the life process. Also like aging, cancer generally cannot be cured but its effects can certainly be mitigated, for example, by delaying onset and extending periods of dormancy. But we will learn to do this effectively only when we better understand , including its place in the great sweep of evolutionary history."

Explore further

Cancer is a result of a default cellular 'safe mode,' physicist proposes

Journal information: Physics World

Citation: New theory uncovers cancer's deep evolutionary roots (2013, July 12) retrieved 20 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 12, 2013
So cancer reactivates dormant embryonic genes. If we can figure out how to control it precisely could inducing cancer itself become a regeneration treatment?

Jul 12, 2013
Perhaps this could also be a factor in the failure of embryonic stem cells to live up to their hype.

Wow, cancer at the body's Blue Screen of Death...

Jul 12, 2013
Pure bunk. Cells don't hang onto genes unless they contribute to the survival of the organism. It doesn't tuck away "old code", unless the genes in question are conserved to fulfill an essential function.

These guys may know physics and cosmology, but they know zilch about evolutionary biology.

Jul 12, 2013
cells also don't actively trim their genetic code unless that contributes positively to the survival of the organism. Evolution isn't a directed process. It's a bunch of random events that, unless harmful, are kept.

Jul 12, 2013
While no doubt cancer expresses genes that shouldn't be expressed in a mature organism, this hypothesis has holes to drive trucks through.

For example, low oxygen traits of cancers are necessary for tem to migrate through the body, and migration is a developmental trait (e.g. mesenchymal stem cells).

Conversely, if cancers evolves in multicellulars, why do plants and fungi lack them? And yeah, "ancient program" that survives variation (mutation) without fixating selection? (Few cancers outside of dogs and Tasmanian wolfs evolve freely outside a particular individual.)

And: "to link the origin of cancer to the origin of life"? There must be something in the paper that the news release doesn't describe.

Jul 12, 2013
@natello: "The speed of evolution and mutations must remain balanced in accordance to life conditions." Claim in need of reference.

"Prokaryota still rely to horizontal gene transfer". Claim in need of reference.

Et cetera.

Finally this: "good social conditions leads to unisex life style". No need for reference, this is outright wrong: tell that to bonobos!

So many sentences, no recognizable biology. Are you trolling?

Jul 13, 2013
The evolution over 3;5 billions years at random is extremely complex, even with humans being hybrids betwwen chimpanzee and pigs as explained seriously by EUGENE M. MCCARTHY :
which explains our more large sensitivity to cancer and melanomes and our strange characteristics as primates;
Cancer comes back to early evolution at the mysterious beginning of multicellular when there was nearly no oxygen on earth back before 600millions years ago.

Jul 13, 2013
Change what you eat , with quite less junk food put in nearly 90% of the industrial food !!
eat bio, no OGM, no beaf or pig eating not their natural food, like corn and hormones.....
and your probability of dying will decrease.

Jul 13, 2013
for example sharks are living in very stable conditions, so they don't evolve fast, they don't require mutations, so they're cancer resistant and hammerhead shark can reproduce asexually.

That's an apparent myth. So far, only naked mole rats have been identified as having higher resistance to cancer.

Jul 13, 2013
Might they be necessary for evolution? Just a thought.

Jul 13, 2013
That's an apparent myth

So we should apparently stop this research and throw the money into more meaningful purposes, don't you think?
Might they be necessary for evolution? Just a thought
The evolution maintains many rudiments without purpose. IMO it's manifestation of unbalance between speed of mutations and speed of environmental changes., i..e. rather byproduct of evolution. The living cells must mutate, but in some cases the speed of their mutation is faster, than it's required by conditions, so it manifest itself with malign mutations.

Jul 14, 2013
That's an apparent myth

So we should apparently stop http://www.voanew...864.html and throw the money into more meaningful purposes, don't you think?

Interesting link, Valeria. I wasn't aware that they were doing that kind of research. I guess the reason I was a bit skeptical is because there are a number of conflicting sources on the internet, some saying it's a myth, and others claiming there's truth to it.

Jul 15, 2013
My thoughts exactly, infogulch.

Jul 15, 2013
So cancer reactivates dormant embryonic genes. If we can figure out how to control it precisely could inducing cancer itself become a regeneration treatment?

The ultimate killer turned into the ultimate healer, now that would be medicine.

Aug 01, 2013
Re "cancer is actually an organized and systematic response to some sort of stress or physical challenge." I am in "durable remission" (7+ years) for Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma, and recently attended a conference for several hundred patients/survivors. Many of us agreed that the disease manifested itself during a period of extreme stress (of the clinical variety, not just anxiety).

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more