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Posts Tagged ‘cancer

“It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it”*…

Still, some species “do it” differently than others…

It is well known that somatic mutations — mutations in our body’s genetic code that accumulate over time — can cause cancer, but their broader role in ageing is less clear.

Now a team of researchers have measured the somatic mutation rates of a range of mammals and discovered a striking correlation between mutation rate and lifespan. Lending evidence to the theory that somatic mutations are a cause of ageing rather than a result of it…

Ageing is linked to accumulated mutations: “The lifespan secret: why giraffes live longer than ferrets,” from @Nature.

* Mark Twain, on aging


As we grow old gracefully, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to William Ian Beardmore (WIB) Beveridge; he was born on this date in 1908.  A veterinarian who served as  director of the Institute of Animal Pathology at Cambridge, he identified the origin of the Great Influenza (the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918-19)– a strain of swine flu.

WIB Beveridge


Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday!

“You fix what you can fix and you let the rest go”*…

Humans are natural problem solvers; still, sometimes no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. But, as Alex Berezow argues, we must accept this harsh reality to have peace in our lives…

Though our species name is Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), perhaps a better one would be Homo problematis solvendis (“problem solving man”). If there’s a mountain, we’ll climb it; if there’s a moon, we’ll fly to it; if there’s a disease, we’ll cure it. Our species’ success in science and technology has even given rise to scientism, the naïve and arrogant belief that science alone is the only legitimate source of knowledge and that any problem — no matter how great — will one day be solved by science.

It is easy to see why many people believe that. We are taught from a young age that the trickiest homework can be solved through diligent study; the toughest sporting competitions can be dominated through training; and the complexities of interpersonal relationships can be settled through understanding and compromise. All of this conspires to create in each of us a false sense that no problem is too big to tackle. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that, sometimes, no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. Indeed, some problems really have no solution…

Berezow goes on to unpack three examples: the Riemann hypothesis, the problem of aging and cancer, and willful ignorance. Then he urges us to understand them as a metaphor…

As we grow older, we slowly come to the realization that there is very little in our lives that we actually can control. We didn’t control who our parents were, where we were born, our genetic gifts (or lack thereof), or the sort of upbringing we received. We can’t control our spouses or our children, let alone politicians. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we can barely control our own thoughts and feelings. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the world contains unsolvable problems. I would go so far as to posit that there may be more unsolvable problems than solvable ones.

So, if there’s any moral lesson to learn from the aforementioned “unsolvable problems,” let it be that they serve as a metaphor for the greater truth that we control far less than we think we do, and that we must become comfortable with that discomforting fact. How? Perhaps the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr could help:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Or perhaps this cheekier version will suffice:

Give me coffee to change the things I can
And wine to accept the things I cannot.

The very concept of a “problem with no solution” goes against human nature, but they’re everywhere– and we need to find ways to relate to them: “Problems with no solution: From math to politics, some things humans cannot solve,” from @AlexBerezow @bigthink.

* Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men


As we ruminate on resolution, we might we might send bright birthday greetings to Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen; he was born on this date in 1811. A chemist, he observed– with a prototype spectroscope that he created– that each element emits a light of characteristic wavelength (thus founding the field of spectrum analysis) and used his insight to discover two new elements, caesium and rubidium.

But Bunsen is probably best remembered for his creation of the Bunsen burner, a gas burner with a non-luminous flame that does not interfere with the colored flame given off by the test material–ubiquitous in labs around the world. Indeed, today is (Inter)National Bunsen Burner Day.


“The rule of thumb is the more profound the experience, the longer you should wait before doing it again”*…




Beyond their visual qualities, mescaline’s hallucinations posed profound philosophical questions. During the mid-1930s three prominent writers and thinkers left records of their experiments with it. In 1934 and 1935 respectively, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Paul Sartre participated in the now-familiar modus operandi of private session between psychiatrist and artist, with the scientific gaze and the philosopher’s insights informing—or, more often, pitted against—one another…

Sartre wrote little directly about his experience, describing it briefly in notes that later found a place in L’imaginaire, his 1940 study of the phenomenology of the imagination. He found its effects elusive and sinister. “It could only exist by stealth,” he wrote; it distorted every sensation, yet whenever he attempted to perceive it directly it withdrew into the background or shifted shape. Its action on the mind “inconsistent and mysterious,” offering no solid vantage point from which to observe it. In contrast to previous descriptions of the “double consciousness” or état mixte, in which the normal self was able to observe its hallucinations dispassionately, Sartre found it impossible to be a spectator of his own experience. On the contrary, he felt submerged against his will in a miasma of sensations that assailed him viscerally at every turn, a world of grotesque extreme close-ups in which everything disgusted him.

The best-known detail of Sartre’s bad trip is Simone de Beauvoir’s anecdote of him being haunted for weeks after by lobster-like creatures scuttling just beyond his field of vision. Sartre, like Aldous Huxley, was partially sighted—a curious coincidence linking two of the most celebrated intellectuals to have taken the vision-producing drug—and his poor vision may have exacerbated his anxieties about shapes lurking just beyond its reach. Later in life he claimed that it had driven him to a nervous breakdown. “After I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time,” he recalled in 1971; “I mean they followed me into the street, into class.” Even though he knew they were imaginary he spoke to them, requesting them to be quiet during his lectures. Eventually he sought psychotherapeutic help from a young Jacques Lacan, which generated “nothing that he or I valued very much,” though “with the crabs, we sort of concluded that it was fear of becoming alone.”…

Caveat comedenti: “Sartre’s bad trip.”

* Dr. James Fadiman


As we contemplate crustacea, we might spare a thought for Jerome Phillip Horwitz; he died on this date in 2012.  A chemist active in cancer research, Horowitz was the first to synthesized AZT (azidothymidine), in 1964, in the hope that it might retard the growth of malignant cells.  It failed at that task, and lay dormant for two decades… until Burroughs Wellcome tested– and patented– Horowitz’s development as a treatment for HIV-AIDS.  The drug company got FDA approval in 1986, and went on to reap enormous financial returns, of which Horowitz saw none.

After AZT, Horowitz went on to create many successful treatments for cancer and other diseases.

(While some believe that Horwitz was referenced in the Captain Underpants books, the Jerome Horwitz Elementary School in the children’s book series was in fact named after Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horowitz) of The Three Stooges.

jerome_horwitzX400_0 source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

Correlation = Causality?…



As we think not, we might recall that it was on this date in 356 BCE that the Temple of Artemis (AKA the Temple of Diana) in Ephesus– reputedly the first Greek temple built of marble, sponsored by Croesus,  and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World– was destroyed by a fire set in its roof beams.

Model of Temple of Artemis, Miniatürk Park, Istanbul (source)

Site in Ephesus today (source)

Atavistic Tendencies: what’s old is new…


A team of astrobiologists, working with a a group of oncologists, has suggested that cancer resembles ancient forms of life that flourished between 600 million and 1 billion years ago.  The genes that controlled the behavior of these early multicellular organisms still reside in our own cells, managed by more recent genes that keep them in check.  It’s when these newer “control genes” fail that the older mechanisms take over, the cell reverts to its earlier behaviors– and cancer does its growing-out-of-control damage.

Reporting in the journal Physical Biology, Paul Davies and and Charles Lineweaver explain

“Advanced” metazoan life of the form we now know, i.e. organisms with cell specialization and organ differentiation, was preceded by colonies of eukaryotic cells in which cellular cooperation was fairly rudimentary, consisting of networks of adhering cells exchanging information chemically, and forming self-organized assemblages with only a moderate division of labor…

So, they suggest, cancer isn’t an attack of “rogue cells,” evolving quickly to overpower normal biological-metabolic routines; it’s a kind of atavism, a throwback…  In conversation with Life Scientist, Lineweaver elaborates

Unlike bacteria and viruses, cancer has not developed the capacity to evolve into new forms. In fact, cancer is better understood as the reversion of cells to the way they behaved a little over one billion years ago, when[life was] nothing more than loose-knit colonies of only partially differentiated cells.

We think that the tumors that develop in cancer patients today take the same form as these simple cellular structures did more than a billion years ago…

The explanation makes a powerful kind of sense, at least at a systemic level: cancers occur in virtually all metazoans (with the exception of the altogether weird naked mole rat).  As Davies and Lineweaver note, “This quasi-ubiquity suggests that the mechanisms of cancer are deep-rooted in evolutionary history, a conjecture that receives support from both paleontology and genetics.”

The good news, Life Scientist observes, is that this means combating cancer is not necessarily as complex as if the cancers were rogue cells evolving new and novel defence mechanisms within the body.

Instead, because cancers fall back on the same evolved mechanisms that were used by early life, we can expect them to remain predictable, thus if they’re susceptible to treatment, it’s unlikely they’ll evolve new ways to get around it.

“Given cancer’s formidable complexity and diversity, how might one make progress toward controlling it? If the atavism hypothesis is correct, there are new reasons for optimism,” [Davies and Lineweaver] write.

[TotH to slashdot]


As we resist the impulse, remembering that there are other good reasons not to smoke, we might recall spare a thought for Giordano Bruno, the Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer whose concept of the infinite universe expanded on Copernicus’s model; he was the first European to understand the universe as a continuum where the stars we see at night are identical in nature to the Sun.  Bruno’s views were considered dangerously heretical by the (Roman) Inquisition, which imprisoned him in 1592; after eight years of refusals to recant, on this date in 1600, he was burned at the stake.

Giordano Bruno

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 17, 2011 at 1:01 am

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