Invisible Etiology

Approaching a Cure for Cancer

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helix structure recently called for a back to basics approach in dealing with cancer.  In previous post threads I’ve discussed cancer’s complexity and in particular the confounding and scary implications of somatic evolution, which underscores some of the reasons we are not winning the “war on cancer.”  Here I will discuss some cutting edge approaches to treating and preventing cancer and how they might pan out in light of the complexities of the disease.  The categories below are not mutually exclusive, and the examples cited are nowhere near exhaustive, but this should give you some food for thought.  If you have ideas, questions or know of approaches that should be highlighted, please comment.

Target & Kill Approaches

Biris and Zharov are making some exciting progress in using nanotubes to tag and then track cancer cells inside the body as they move around.  They propose to kill the cancer cells by heating up the nanotubes using lasers, while others are

How Many Calories for a Dollar?

Michael Pollan, as always, making perfect sense:

Now watch Will Allen on urban farming…

Comments on Human Cultural Transformation

This is a followup to Ben’s post on Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations.  Too many links for this to be accepted into the comments directly…

In thinking about these questions, it helps me to remind myself of the difference between evolution and emergence. Evolution happens whenever you have a population of agents with heritable variation and differential reproduction rates. There are at least two types of emergence, both of which can create new types of agents. Various self-reinforcing mechanisms lead to stronger and more stable agency. We may not even recognize the emergence of nascent agents for what they are until said agency (or coherence) becomes strong enough. For instance, many people have a hard time wrapping their head around cultural agency of any form.

Obviously none of us on here have a problem with the concept of non-human agency, but as Alex and Ben collectively point out, cultural agents depend on human agents for their very existence.  Yet …

The Link Between Food & Healthcare Reform

Also must-read this Sunday is Michael Pollan’s NY Times Op-Ed piece from Wednesday.  Nice cap to my week of ranting on the dismantling of rationality when it comes to lifestyle choices that directly impact one’s health, here and here.…

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

Complex Systems Symposium

Should be of interest to everyone who reads this blog.  Here’s the program, here’s the website, and here’s some more info that you can’t get from either yet:

Dear all:

Just wanted to share with you all a couple of updates for our Fall Symposium.  We’re very pleased to have two invited speakers so far: John Christiansen of Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and Mitchell Waldrop of Nature magazine.

John is the director of the Advanced Simulation Technologies Center at ANL, and has over 30 years of modeling and simulation experience across many fields, including: meteorology, ecology, botany, anthropology, archeology, healthcare, and more.  He will present some of his work on a recent NSF Grand Challenge in Biocomplexity, which created an agent-based model to study the rise and fall of Ancient Mesopotamia.  He will also use this work to illustrate different hardware and software platforms, with a particular focus on the challenges on going from the desktop to HPC.

Mitch is currently the editorial

Should You Use Sunscreen?

This is a very complex topic, as the following talk suggests:

The main takeaways from this that I got are:

  1. Cancers for which sunlight deficit is a risk factor are orders of magnitude more prevalent than the few for which overexposure is a risk factor.
  2. People who are using sunscreen regularly are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be.
  3. We should be very careful and sparing about recommending sunscreen usage or sun avoidance, and always temper such advice with the tradeoffs of not getting enough sunlight.

As someone who wonders on a regular basis whether the public has the right information to make informed decisions about health-related tradeoffs, I am curious… does the above strike you as surprising?  What do you currently do regarding sun exposure, and are you likely to change anything based on the above?  What do you think the overall message that reaches the masses is regarding sun exposure?…

Celiac Disease on the Rise

According to a new report in Gastroenterology (July 09), Celiac Disease is now 4 times more common in the US than it was during the 1950’s. The disease results from an intolerance to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye.  When celiac patients consume gluten, they suffer an inflammatory reaction within the small intestine that can lead to a host of manifestations, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, infertility, malnutrition, and premature osteoporosis.  It can develop at any age and is frequently misdiagnosed or undiagnosed because of its non-specific symptoms.  Based on this new evaluation, about 1 in 100 people have it and many are not aware.  Anyone with chronic gastrointestinal complaints or any of the features listed above, should be screened for this disease.  A simple blood test can determine the diagnosis in most cases.  Treatment entails lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet.  The “silver lining” for folks diagnosed with Celiac disease is that it largely and forever commits them to

Violence on the Decline

From Monday’s Washington Post:

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

Full article is here, in which more sensible police approaches are given credit for the decline.…

Shadows and Strings

Shadows live in a simple world. They glide effortlessly across any sort of surface, oblivious to the higher dimension of space in which 3-D bodies move, collide and sometimes block the paths of rays of light.

Shadows have no idea how important that third dimension is, and how objects in it endow those very shadows with their quasi-physical existence. Indeed, the laws of shadow physics all depend on the third dimension’s presence. And just as the clueless inhabitants of the shadow world require an extra dimension to explain how they exist and interact, reality for humans may also depend on an invisible dimension or dimensions unknown.

A Meditation on Biological Modeling

This is not my meditation, it was created by Cellucidate:…

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.…


Yesterday, from the Director of the National Cancer Institute, addressing one of the two largest cancer research conferences of the year:

NCI commenced a series of workshops that began to bring aspects of the physical sciences to the problem of cancer. We discussed how physical laws governing short-range and other forces, energy flows, gradients, mechanics, and thermodynamics affect cancer, and how the theories of Darwinian and somatic evolution can better help us understand and control cancer.

Read more on my Cancer Complexity Forum post.…

Cold Fusion

I remember reading this Wired article in 1998 suggesting that the “debunking” of cold fusion may have been way premature.  Last night, 60 Minutes did a pretty convincing piece claiming that more than 20 labs around the world have reported “excess heat” from cold fusion experiments:

Click here for the full story. Watch here.

It’s interesting to me that the best skeptic they could find on the subject (Richard Garwin) was thoroughly unconvincing, simply asserting that there must be a measurement problem, without he himself daring to go measure.  You’d think it would be worth a looksy.  More interesting still was the independent expert in measuring energy (Rob Duncan) who came in as a total skeptic and came out as a believer.

But my favorite part of the story is near the end when Fleischmann (co-discoverer of cold fusion) appears to be having both a literal and figurative last laugh.  Man, what a bad beat he and Pons got.

Besides Garwin, who are the …

The Vanguard of Science: Bonnie Bassler

The import of this talk goes way beyond the specific and stunning work that Bassler and her team have done on quorum sensing.  In my mind, this is the prototype for good biological science:…

Victory Over "War on Terror"

For those of who understand the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, there’s some good news on the foreign policy front.  The Obama administration (thanks to Hillary Clinton) will not be using the phrase “war on terror” anymore, as it is widely deemed to be “overly militaristic and perhaps counterproductive.”  Amen!

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz


Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.…

Crohn's Disease

Debbie Maier asks us on the Upcoming Topics page to address Crohn’s Disease.

I don’t know too much about it except that it’s an autoimmune disease and has a complex, multi-causal etiology and pathology.  In my reading on autoimmune diseases in general there seems to be a direct link between latitude an incidence.   Specifically, the farther from the equator you live the more likely you are to get Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.…

Cancer as Evolution — 2008 Summary

Click here to read part 4 in this series.

As 2008 closes, it appears that momentum is picking up for the somatic evolution view of cancer.  Here are three recently published papers of note:

  • The Evolution of Cancer (Goymer, et al, Aug 2008, Nature)
  • Cancer Research Meets Evolutionary Biology (Pepper, et al, in press, 2008 Evolutionary Applications; Santa Fe Institute working paper)
  • Genome Based Cell Population Heterogeneity Promotes Tumorigenicity: The Evolutionary Mechanism of Cancer (Ye, et al, Dec 2008, Journal of Cellular Physiology)

Best Talk of Pop!Tech '08

The reason I like this talk so much (besides that it’s well-presented) is that it introduces us to the idea of invisible etiology.  Such a powerful concept, one that I feel has the power to help us solve so many mysteries, once we take it seriously.

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately: does homelessness have an invisible etiology (or etiologies), and if so, what is it?…

Cancer as Evolution, part 4

For those who missed the first three parts:

Any underlying theme of this thread is how reliance on reductionism causes us to miss the key invisible etiologies that are necessary to make progress on understanding, treating, detecting and preventing cancer.

In the first three parts of this series, I pointed out how the invisible etiology of somatic evolution has great explanatory and predictive power for oncology.  A new paper by some researchers on the vanguard of complex systems thinking shows how adding a complementary ecological model leads us to the promising approach of ecological therapy.

A Nature Review article published a couple of years ago summarizes the case for cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process

hat tip: David Basanta

Behavior and Emotions as Virus

We’ve talked about obesity as a virus and violence as a virus, both well-supported by the research.  Now there’s happiness as a virus.  Hardly a surprise, but I guess for new paradigms to become the accepted basis for organizing scientific thinking, they first have to become banal.  So let’s bring it on, what’s the next human behavior or emotion that will be featured in a “surprising”study showing a viral etiology?

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

The Emergent Universe

In a previous post I asked what you thought this was:


Here is the same system at different resolutions (lowest to highest):…

What Stops Terrorism

40% percent of terrorist groups are defeated by police and intelligence operations.  43% percent end because they give up violence and join the political process.  Only 7% end as a result of military force.

This according to the research of Seth Jones, as reported in the 2008 Genius edition of Esquire Magazine.…


An incidentaloma according to wikipedia is “a tumor (-oma) found by coincidence (incidental) without clinical symptoms or suspicion.”  The provocative NY Times article below suggests that indolent tumors (i.e. ones that do not need treatment) may come and go as a normal part of life.  With better detection tools, we are finding more and more of these.  However our protocol for dealing with tumors is based on a time when tumors found were almost always non-incidental, non-indolent and requiring of positive action (like surgery).  According to Dr. Donald A. Berry, chairman of the department of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center:

It’s possible that we all have cells that are cancerous and that grow a bit before being dumped by the body. ‘Hell bent for leather’ early detection research will lead to finding some of them. What will be the consequence? Prophylactic removal of organs in the masses? It’s really scary.