Why Cancer is Everywhere - Including in Cacti

Devon Keeley's picture

Expert Speaks at Harvard on 'Complex Multicellularity'

  • Photo courtesy https://biodesign.asu.edu/news/laboratory-arizona

CAMBRIDGE – Evolutionary biologist Dr. Athena Aktipis from Arizona State University came to the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture to give a talk on her research of trying to treat cancer by using a more evolutionary approach.

Aktipis’ presentation and models, despite them being untraditional has sparked “tremendous and fortunately on-going excitement about evolution and medicine,” said Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowtiz, a professor of medicine at the University of California.

During the lecture, Aktipis discussed why cancer is so prevalent, not just among humans, but across a vast array of species and explained what exactly cancer looks like in various forms of life.

Her initial inspiration to study this came from a cactus with rare growth near her home in Arizona. The cactus had clustered cells that shared a striking resemblance to cancer.

The idea of humans not being alone in their struggle with cancer and the desire to learn how the cactus was alive and thriving with cancer-like cells led Aktipis into her research.

Through a yearlong residence at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, she found that species with complex multicellularity had a greater likelihood of developing cancer-like cells.

Cancer was observed in vertebrates, arthropods, and even mollusks. They found blood cancer in clams and melanoma-type cells in a starfish. Cancer-like phenomenons were also found in coral, fungi and green algae.

She compared cells to groups of people and as groups get larger the opportunities may increase, but the potential for challenges also goes up.

Aktipis describes cancer and cancer-like cells as “cheating” within the society of cellular groups. She defines cheating in an operational way as “breaking of shared rules leading to a fitness advantage for the rule violator.”

One of more profound conclusions she came to in her lecture was that multi-cellular life has co-existed with cancer since the very beginning and that multicellular bodies have “collective cellular intelligence” which keeps cancer rates lower than they otherwise would be.

Because cancer is a “fundamental component to multi-cellular life” Aktipis says, “cancer is not necessarily something that we need to treat extremely aggressively in all cases.”

As for the future of cancer? “The future is not necessarily about curing cancer and finding a way to completely eliminate it,” she continues, “rather discover how to best control cancer and cancer-like cells so we can live with them and not die of them.”

But evolutionarily informed treatments can help control cancer, such as learning how to minimize the evolution of cellular resistance.

Aktipis is the author of a forthcoming book, “Evolution in the Flesh: Cancer and the Transformation of Life.”