New theory uncovers cancer's deep evolutionary roots

July 12, 2013

A new way to look at cancer – by tracing its deep evolutionary roots to the dawn of multicellularity more than a billion years ago – has been proposed by Paul Davies of Arizona State University’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science in collaboration with Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University. If their theory is correct, it promises to transform the approach to cancer therapy, and to link the origin of cancer to the origin of life and the developmental processes of embryos.

Davies and Lineweaver are both theoretical physicists and cosmologists with experience in the field of astrobiology – the search for life beyond Earth. They turned to cancer research only recently, in part because of the creation at Arizona State University of the Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology. The center is one of twelve established by the National Cancer Institute to encourage physical scientists to lend their insights into tackling cancer. portrait of Paul Davies in his office Download Full Image

The new theory challenges the orthodox view that cancer develops anew in each host by a series of chance mutational accidents. Davies and Lineweaver claim that cancer is actually an organized and systematic response to some sort of stress or physical challenge. It might be triggered by a random accident, they say, but thereafter it more or less predictably unfolds.

Their view of cancer is outlined in the article “Exposing cancer’s deep evolutionary roots,” written by Davies. It appears in a special July issue of Physics World devoted to the physics of cancer.

“We envisage cancer as the execution of an ancient program pre-loaded into the genomes of all cells,” says Davies, an Arizona State University Regents' Professor in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It is rather like Windows defaulting to ‘safe mode’ after suffering an insult of some sort.” As such, he describes cancer as a throwback to an ancestral phenotype.

The new theory predicts that as cancer progresses through more and more malignant stages, it will express genes that are more deeply conserved among multicellular organisms, and so are in some sense more ancient. Davies and Lineweaver are currently testing this prediction by comparing gene expression data from cancer biopsies with phylogenetic trees going back 1.6 billion years, with the help of Luis Cisneros, a postdoctoral researcher with ASU's Beyond Center.

But if this is the case, then why hasn’t evolution eliminated the ancient cancer subroutine?

“Because it fulfills absolutely crucial functions during the early stages of embryo development,” Davies explains. “Genes that are active in the embryo and normally dormant thereafter are found to be switched back on in cancer. These same genes are the ‘ancient’ ones, deep in the tree of multicellular life.”

The link with embryo development has been known to cancer biologists for a long time, says Davies, but the significance of this fact is rarely appreciated. If the new theory is correct, researchers should find that the more malignant stages of cancer will re-express genes from the earliest stages of embryogenesis. Davies adds that there is already some evidence for this in several experimental studies, including recent research at Harvard University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“As cancer progresses through its various stages within a single organism, it should be like running the evolutionary and developmental arrows of time backward at high speed,” says Davies.

This could provide clues to future treatments. For example, when life took the momentous step from single cells to multicellular assemblages, Earth had low levels of oxygen. Sure enough, cancer reverts to an ancient form of metabolism called fermentation, which can supply energy with little need for oxygen, although it requires lots of sugar.

Davies and Lineweaver predict that if cancer cells are saturated with oxygen but deprived of sugar, they will become more stressed than healthy cells, slowing them down or even killing them. ASU’s Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, of which Davies is principal investigator, is planning a workshop in November to examine the clinical evidence for this.

“It is clear that some radically new thinking is needed,” Davies states. “Like aging, cancer seems to be a deeply embedded part of the life process. Also like aging, cancer generally cannot be cured but its effects can certainly be mitigated, for example, by delaying onset and extending periods of dormancy. But we will learn to do this effectively only when we better understand cancer, including its place in the great sweep of evolutionary history.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU's Krauss receives Rome's most prestigious cultural award

July 15, 2013

Lawrence Krauss, a renowned cosmologist, author and professor at Arizona State University, has been awarded the “Roma Award Urbs Universalis 2013” by the Mayor of Rome. Krauss, who was honored during a formal ceremony on July 12 at the 2,000 year-old Ostia Antica Roman Theater in Rome, Italy, was cited for contributions to culture on an international level.

“This came as a total surprise and is a remarkable honor,” Krauss said. “I particularly appreciate receiving a prize that mixes science and culture, and receiving it in the open air in a 2,000 year-old Roman forum theater, with music and dance performances as well made it something I will always remember.” Download Full Image

“The Roma Award Urbs Universalis” is assigned by a jury to a person who has acquired special merits in the international arena. The “Premio Roma” is a major literary award in Italy and has three sections: international fiction, Italian fiction and international nonfiction, as well as special prizes for persons who have made significant cultural and scientific contributions.

In recent years, the Urbs Universalis Prize has gone to Nobel Prize winners, scientists, engineers and musicians whose work transcends national boundaries. Recent awardees include particle physicist and Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia, oncologist and politician Umberto Veronesi, neurologist and Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini, violinist and conductor Salvatore Accardo, Academy Award winning actor Maximilian Schell and astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Krauss is internationally known for his work in theoretical physics and cosmology, and is a well known author and science communicator. In addition to being a Foundation Professor at Arizona State University, Krauss is the director of the Origins Project – which explores key questions about our origins, who we are and where we came from, and then holds open forums to encourage public participation. 

Krauss is the only physicist to receive major awards from all three U.S. physics societies: the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Last year he was given the 2012 Public Service Award from the National Science Board for his efforts in communicating science to general audiences.

Krauss has authored more than 300 scientific publications and nine books, including his most recent bestseller, "A Universe from Nothing," which offers provocative, revelatory answers to the most basic philosophical questions of existence. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction within a week of its release.

Krauss also wrote the international bestseller, "The Physics of Star Trek," an entertaining and eye-opening tour of the Star Trek universe, and "Beyond Star Trek," which addressed recent exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy and takes a look how the laws of physics relate to notions from popular culture. A book on physicist Richard Feynman, "Quantum Man," was awarded the 2011 Book of the Year by Physics World magazine in the UK.

Krauss has been a frequent commentator and columnist for newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has written regular columns for New Scientist and Scientific American, and appears routinely on radio and television.

He continues to be a leader in his field, serving as a co-chair of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on the board of directors of the Federation of American Scientists, and is one of the founders of ScienceDebate2012.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications