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 do we know what we know?

If you grew up like me you were brought up in a culture based on a dualist metaphysics, one that asserts that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves (whatever “we” are) and that we know about it indirectly through our senses and conscious reasoning.  This is the basis of the Western traditions of science, liberal arts and symbolic systems (such as mathematics and human language).  Essentially anything that can be studied is part of this metaphysics.  Gödel showed us that this metaphysics will never lead to complete knowing, though everyone agrees we can continually refine our knowledge and thereby at least asymptotically approach enlightenment.

Descartes proved to us that each of us individually do indeed exist, and he tried to argue further that the universe as we perceive it — however imperfectly — does indeed exist too.  But before you drink too deeply from the Cartesian well, keep in mind that his argument for an external

Egyptian Mummies Yield Ancient Secrets of Good Journalism

This is based on an LA Times article here

What strikes me most is how athlerosclerotic the science itself is.  Or perhaps it’s just the reportage?

The opening line of the article is “CT scans of Egyptian mummies… show evidence of… hardening of the arteries, which is normally thought of as a disease caused by modern lifestyles….”  One of the researching cardiologist draws this conclusion: “Perhaps atherosclerosis is part of being human.”

The LA Times reporter covering the story (Thomas Maugh) rightly points out at the end, “The high-status Egyptians ate a diet high in meat from cattle, ducks and geese, all fatty.”  Which of course entirely negates the hypothesis of heart disease being part of the natural human condition.

It’s clear why the researchers — both cardiologists — would want ancient evidence to support the notion that heart disease is normal.  But the fact is that the preponderance of evidence around the world in epidemiology as well as cardiology indicates that …

Daniel Nocera’s Gift

I just saw the most important talk I have seen in 300+ TED, Pop!Tech, etc talks that I’ve watched.  And at the risk of hyperbole, I will say that the worst case scenario is that Daniel Nocera simply wins a Nobel Prize (and yes, I’m willing to bet at even odds that it happens in under 10 years from today).  But if the system is able to scale through replication, it will be at least as important as penicillin in terms of ending human suffering and will have a bigger impact on the world as a whole.  Here’s why:

  • Input: Water (clean, saltwater or dirty water)
  • Outputs: Electricity + Pure drinkable water
  • By products: nothing (other than what was in the water)
  • Resources required to assemble: all abundant and most have substitutes
  • Knowledge required to assemble: simple
  • Cost to assemble: relatively cheap

Essentially what Nocera has done is reverse engineered and re-created a super-simplified photosynthesis process.  It’s a closed loop (i.e. autocatalytic) so …

Rafe Issues Challenge to Statin Industry

I have been trying to get the straight scoop on whether statins actually decrease mortality and morbidity in a significant way and I haven’t been able to find any real evidence that they do.

If you ask a cardiologist it’s clear that they believe unequivocally that statins work, mostly because they see what statins to do blood cholesterol levels.  But remember, cholesterol numbers in and of themselves do not matter.  They are a proxy variable for cardiovascular health.  Plaque buildup matters.  At one time blood cholesterol numbers were the only non-invasive indicator we had of plaque buildup, but that’s not true anymore.  However, drug companies are highly incentivized to prove that statins improve health.  So they fund lots of studies.

Notwithstanding the systemic bias when there are profit motives and publication motives, we can turn to these studies and see if statins actually work.  The best way to remove bias is to look at large-scale meta-analyses, like this one.  If you simply read the …

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?…

Something Fishy About Mercury

Here is a fascinating discussion on NPR’s Forum from earlier this year on the subject of mercury and fish:

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If you’ve listened to this the whole way through (which you should), I’m curious as to how it will affect your habits, if at all.  And why?…

A Meditation on Biological Modeling

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

World’s Most Ambitious Crowdsource

Everyone has heard about the Large Hadron Collider, arguably the most ambitious and complex engineering project ever undertaken, anywhere.  The purpose, no less ambitious, is to answer all sorts of burning questions about the nature of the universe, including whether the Standard Model of particle physics is valid.  Given such ambition and high stakes, it would surprise most people that the LHC is managed in a collaborative manner with very little hierarchy.  Essentially it’s a giant, crowdsourced science experiment.…


Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.…

Peer-Review vs. Info Prizes and Markets

I have been having a 140 character discussion with Ciarán Brewster (@macbruski) via twitter.  And while it’s kind of interesting to force complex subject matter into very few characters, it is limiting the discussion, so I will summarize it so far here and hopefully others can weigh in too.…


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 …

A Serious Solution to Carbon Emissions

As I’ve made clear before, I remain skeptical that carbon emissions pose a significant marginal threat of climate change. The likely climate sensitivity to CO2 is substantially less than the natural variability over human timescales.  Seeing as how temperature trends over geologic time scales are currently downward, I don’t think it’s worth wasting much effort on CO2 reductions.

However, let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong.  What should we do? I don’t think we can actually decrease our energy usage very much and support our civilization. So we have to find non-petroleum energy sources.  Biofuel technology doesn’t look very good at the moment.  Scaling will require major land use changes that I contend are probably a net negative environmental impact. The cost-benefit for solar does look better, especially in certain geographic areas. But it seems to me the only massively scalable solution at our current level of technology is nuclear fission.…

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:…

The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.…

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.…

Health and Fitness Q&A with Kevin

Whenever I have a question about health matters that is too complex for an MD or academic researcher to get right, I ask Kevin.  Nobody I know has a better combination of broad-based current knowledge of the primary literature, plus a whole-system view and understanding of compex dynamics, plus the practical will and experience in living by (and updating) his conclusions.

Here are some questions I had for Kevin recently and his answers.

Rafe: Do the BPA results (such as they are) cause you concern?  Do you still use your Nalgene bottle?  Would you let your infant or child drink from a plastic bottle or sippy-cup?…

Teaching Metacognition to 7th Graders

Gary Marcus says he’d like for there to be a course on metacognition for kids:

Call it “The Human Mind: A User’s Guide,” aimed at, say, seventh-graders.  Instead of emphasizing facts, I’d expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn’t.  And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, to make choices in ways that better suit our long-term goals.

What a brilliant and practical idea.

Anyone want to take a stab at a syllabus?…

Early Detection: better late than never

Here is the scariest image in all of cancer:


Graph from Fortune Magazine article.

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?…

Group Selection Meme on the Rise


This is from a recent Seed Magazine article.  Click on the image to enlarge it.…

The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.

JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. …