In November 2018, the National Cancer Institute awarded ASU $8.5 million over five years to establish the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE), located at ASU, which is now a hub for an international league of intrepid explorers who are turning traditional cancer research upside down. Maley is the center director, and Aktipis is part of a team studying organismal evolution and cancer defenses.

Aktipis launched the evening event at the garden with a talk: “From Cacti to Coral: Cancer is a Part of Life.” Essentially, her message is that every multicellular creature is a candidate for cancer, and many plants and animals grow and survive in the face of cell mutations.

Aktipis combines her knowledge of biology with her research on human generosity and cooperation and conflict to characterize the behavior of the rogue cells, calling it “cellular cheating.” She observes that cheating occurs across all forms of life, defining cheating as “breaking shared rules, leading to a fitness advantage for the rule violator,” and in the case of cancer, death and destruction for the cooperating cells.

Aktipis’ former trainee and Biodesign postdoctoral fellow, Amy Boddy, now an assistant professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, is leading the ACE team in curating a database with thousands of records of cancer characteristics across species. This allows them to look for patterns, variations and insights that might provide clues as to how humans can live better with cancer.

Aktipis explained that one might surmise that the larger the animal and the longer its life, the more opportunities for cell misbehavior there would be. But this is not actually the pattern that they see — instead some larger animals, like elephants and whales, seem to have lower cancer rates than their smaller counterparts. Maley discovered why: He found that elephants have 40 copies of TP53, a cancer suppression gene. Humans have two copies of TP53, one from each parent. Newsweek featured Maley’s work in an article titled "Why Elephants Don’t Get Cancer – and What That Means for Humans."

Today, the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center is studying more than 180,000 multicellular creatures, including birds, primates and large carnivores. Ultimately, the question is: Can we pursue treatments that aim to allow the body to effectively adapt to cancer, as opposed to waging an all-out war on cancerous tumors?

Recently, Aktipis and Maley have received a grant from the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre, part of the Arizona Department of Health Services, to launch a breast cancer clinical trial with the Mayo Clinic using adaptive therapy. Their work was featured in the April edition of Wired magazine, in an article titled “A clever new strategy for treating cancer, thanks to Darwin.”

Cancer garden project team member Byron Sampson, landscape architect and associate director of ASU’s Office of the University Architect, lost both his mother and father to cancer. Sampson, himself, is a brain tumor survivor.

“What really resonates with me is living with it, instead of battling with it like a war,” Sampson said. “If you look at it differently, it’s just abnormal cell growth. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just different.”

Perhaps the cacti know more than we yet understand. Crested cacti survive in the harsh conditions of the desert, even with mutations and unusual growth patterns. These beautiful plants may have a great deal to teach us about how we can survive and thrive in the face of cancer.

“The future is living with cancer rather than dying of it,” said Aktipis, as she closed her talk and led guests to admire the cacti. 

Written by Dianne Price