Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that perception just isn’t true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within every complex organism. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. We get cancer because we can’t not get it.
Cancer has always been with us. It killed our hominid ancestors, the mammals they evolved from and the dinosaurs that trampled the ground before that. Tumors grow in pets, livestock and wild animals. Even tiny jelly-like Hydra—creatures that are little more than a tube full of water—can get cancer.
Cancer starts when cells rebel against the social norms of the body, throwing off their molecular shackles and growing out of control in a shambolic mockery of normal life. This is why we can’t avoid cancer: because the very genes that drive it are essential for life itself.
The revolution has raged, on and off, for millions of years. But it was only in the twentieth century that doctors and scientists made any significant progress in understanding and treating cancer, and it is only in the past few decades that we’ve finally begun to make meaningful improvements in survival.
Now the game is changing. Scientists have infiltrated cancer’s cellular rebellion and are finally learning its secrets. Seeing cancer in a new way—as rebel cells adapting and evolving within the landscape of the body—is pointing towards new ways of preventing and controlling cancer in the long term or even driving it to extinction altogether.
Full transcript, links and references available online at GeneticsUnzipped.com
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK