Study: ‘Cancer is as old as multicellular life on Earth and will probably never be completely eradicated’


Close up of cancer cells in the cervix. (American Cancer Society/Getty Images)

Richard Nixon declared war on cancer 43 years ago.

He was about one billion years too late.

According to a recent study, cancer has been around as long as multicellular life — and it’s not going anywhere.

“Cancer is as old as multicellular life on Earth and will probably never be completely eradicated,” said lead researcher Thomas Bosch of Germany’s Kiel University in a press release. The study was just published in the journal Nature Communications.

The paper — “Naturally occurring tumours in the basal metazoan Hydra” — looked at an ancient organism not unlike coral.

Scientists already knew that such organisms carried genes that can cause cancer in humans. Bosch and his team provided evidence that they also can develop tumors.

And the tumors they found were similar to those found in humans. One affected only female Hydra and was likened to ovarian cancer.

“Our study also makes it unlikely that the war on cancer proclaimed in the 1970s can ever be won,” Bosch said. “However, knowing your enemy from it origins is the best way to fight it and win many battles.”

But when it comes to cancer — according to the World Health Organization, the planet’s leading cause of death — rhetoric about winning battles seems empty.

Some estimate the U.S. government has spent more than $100 billion fighting cancer.

Sure, treatment has improved. But will cancer ever go the way of polio?

In an interview with The Washington Post, Bosch explained further.

“When, during evolution, cells became more complicated,” Bosch said, “there must be communication. Cells must have a precise plan.”

The problem: Plans go awry.

“The cell makes a wrong decision,” Bosch said. He referred to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2011 book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”

Cancer, Mukherjee wrote, is:

a disease caused by the uncontrolled growth of a single cell. This growth is unleashed by mutations — changes in DNA that specifically affect genes that incite unlimited cell growth. In a normal cell, powerful genetic circuits regulate cell division and cell death. In a cancer cell, these circuits have been broken, unleashing a cell that cannot stop growing.

Our bodies are supposed to eliminate mistaken cells in what Bosch calls “programmed cell death.”

Tumor cells, Bosch said, neutralize cell death, letting “wrong” cells grow unchecked.

Though such mistakes can be treated by medical science, they will always be made — and cancer will likely always exist.

In fact, Bosch criticized the war on cancer further.

“The logic behind it was pretty naïve,” he said. “‘We can send people to the moon, we can eradicate cancer.’ Now the biologist says, ‘Sorry, that can never work.’ ”

Don’t like this fatalistic view? Don’t shoot the messenger.

“Some people ask, ‘How can you live with that?’ ” Bosch said. ” ‘Isn’t that very sad?’ I say, ‘I am a cell biologist with an evolutionary interest. I just watch the cells and have to tell the community what is going on.’ ”

H/t Science Daily

Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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