Cancer is a strange one. If you have ever been affected by it, either personally, or family and friends, you will know that it seems like one of the least normal things around. It is truly disrupting to all aspects of one’s life, and actually threatens their very existence.
There are times where cancer seems to have this ability to evade all treatments we throw at it. And it is good at surprising us. When we finally think it is gone, bamb, it comes back with vengeance. It can even take over our body’s systems to feed its own growth. And it will grow indefinitely if we let it. Well until it actually kills us.
Where on earth did such a disease come from? And why has it evolved with use?
Were Did Cancer Come From- The Origin Story
Cancer has been with use since the beginning. Not the beginning of humanity, but the beginning of multi-cellular life itself. That’s quite impressive in itself, spanning about a billion years. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
About a billion years ago, scientist think multi-cellular life began. It is thought that multiple single-celled organisms formed groups. Each contributing in some way to benefit the others. This would give the group an edge over single celled organisms. Hence the evolutionary pressures would favor this new multi-cellular organism.
There were many benefits in this partnership, however, just like any partnership there are costs associated. One of the largest costs is the freedom of a single celled lifestyle. When living in a group, an individual cell needs to give up freedoms. Freedoms such as; reproducing, using as much resources as they can, and having to take care of the environment around them.
Sometimes a single cell in a multi-cellular organism will have to make one of the largest sacrifice of all and give up its own life for the benefit of the whole organism.
This simple multi-cellular organism is where much of the animal kingdom has evolved from. But our bodies are far from a simple group of cells. Like these early multi-cellular organisms. Rather our bodies are made up of trillion and trillions of cells. The current estimated is that there are more than 100,000,000,000,000 cells in a single person.
And it is remarkable that all these cells obey and cooperate for the benefit of the entire body. With millions sacrificing themselves every second. This is one of the most complex systems known to science, how do you get a 100 trillion cells to work together to form a single human!
Think about that, we can’t get 7 billion people to agree that we need to do something to change global warming.
Cooperation on a Massive Scale
Our bodies are complex. An organisation of 100 trillion cells, more than 1400 times the population on earth, 100 times the number of people that have ever lived on earth, somehow all working together on. With the same goals and ambitions.
This can’t be easy. You probably have experiences a situation where cooperation between only a few people has been difficult. Think of a group project, or a work assignment, or a business venture. Have you experiences a breakdown of ideologies. Who should do what. Did anyone in the group make a sacrifice just so the group could complete its goals?
This is a good analogy to cancer. Think of the cells as a working group. When all cells are cooperating the group is healthy, even though some cells may need to make sacrifices. When one cell doesn’t want to make the effort, the group becomes unhealthy and other cells need to pick up the slack if possible. The cooperation breaks down. This cell goes of from the group on its own.
Now the benefits of being a single cell are that you can use as much resources as you want. You don’t answer to anyone. You don’t need to worry about your neighbors, and you can reproduces as much as you like. And that’s exactly what the cell does- it has now become cancerous.
A cancer cell will consume resources as fast as it can, much faster than healthy cells. It will reproduce or divide faster, and as it does it will push, or invade into its neighborhood. And as it does this it doesn’t care about what state it has left the area in. Leaving a wake of waste as it continues to not cooperate with the rest of the cells.
At Odds with Evolution- Were Did Cancer Come From?
It is easy to think that evolution would favor singular cellular organisms. Since going out on your own can benefit you directly. So how did organisms evolve that require large number of cells to cooperate?
Biologists have come to consider two solutions to this problem. One is called the reciprocity solution, and the other is genetic relatedness solution.
The reciprocity solution suggests that individual cells will cooperate together to form an organism in the knowledge that in the future they will see the benefit from this cooperation.
The genetic relatedness solution suggest that cooperation occurs within a multi-cellular organism because all cells in that organism share the same genetic coding. Each cell has a copy of the hosts DNA.
This genetic relatedness solution is the most plausible in large multi-cellular organisms like humans. In these organism it makes sense for genes to sell sacrifice for the benefit for the whole organism.
For example, consider you liver cells. Which work hard to detox your body from all the nastyis that it may come across. Such as alcohol. Your liver will filter and process alcohol, ensuring that you don’t stay drunk.
Your liver performing these tasks so that you are more likely to survive and as a result reproduce. The genes within the hard working liver cells will get passed on to the next generation for their effort.
But if your liver cells get lazy and stop working hard, start over consuming resources and reproducing out of control, you as a whole are less likely to reproduce and these lazy liver cells won’t get passed on to the next generation.
So the motivation for each cell to work hard is to give you the best chance at reproducing offspring so that cell can pass its DNA will live on.
Cells out of control- Were Did Cancer Come From?
As long as all the cells within your body are cooperating everything is fine. All the cells go on to perform their task and ensure that you survive. The cells are constantly dividing, growing, and using resources. Some are even deliberately dying while others get to survive.
Every Time a cell divides, it has to copy the DNA so that it can pass one two each of the two daughter cells created. Each time the DNA molecule is divided there is a chance that a mutation might occur.
A mutation within the DNA molecule is not necessarily a bad thing. This is actually how we evolved in the first place. A slight mutation occurs that has some benefit to use. Which ultimately improves our chances of survival.
Also contained within this DNA molecules is the genetic code for multi-cellular cooperation. If a mutation occurs in this bit of code then there is a chance that the cell will not cooperate with the rest of the body. It plays by its own rules. Uses all the resources and destroys the environment around it.
Cheating the system
Our immune system is constantly looking for non-cooperative cells. And once it find them it eliminates them. But the immune system can make mistakes sometimes.
When a non-cooperative cell invades the immune system, and it started to use resources and reproduce a cancer has formed.
It is interesting to think from a cancer cell’s perspective. They don’t think they are cheating, in fact they think they have won at evolution. They are dividing and reproducing as much as they can. Passing their DNA on as they go. The one thing that cancer cells don’t realise is that they are pushing towards ultimate death, in the form of host death.
So cancer cells can out perform normal healthy cells because they don’t follow the rules of cooperation ensuring the host survives.
Evolution of Cancer
As cancer progresses and becomes mature, it evolves. This evolution that cancer goes through makes it harder for treatments to be effective against the cells. When a cancer has matured it has become a diverse range of cells living in a very complex environment inside the body.
So if we were to treat an evolved cancer with a drug, let’s say, there are a few reasons why it may not be as effective. One is that there is a chance that some of the cancer cells will be resistant to the drug. The chance of this is higher when the cancer has had time to evolve. The second reason is that the drug may not get to all cells, since the cancer has now created it’s own environment. The outer cells will receive the drug, protecting the inner cells.
So you can understand why it is better to catch a cancer early, before it has had time to evolve. Not killing even one cancer cell can cause it to come back. And because you didn’t kill this cell with the drug the first time round, it is highly likely that it is now drug resistant.
So it seems that cancer is just a normal part of a complex multi-cellular organism. When a cell decides it doesn’t want to conform to the bodies needs and go on its own. This does not mean than everyone will get cancer thought.
There are many things we can do to lower the risk of developing cancer. All these methods ultimately involve one thing. Slowing down the rate of cell duplication. Every Time a cell reproduces, there is a chance that one of the duplicate will mutate and pose a cancer risk.